Editor's note: John Avlon, a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, co-edited the new anthology "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns." Presidential hopefuls take on national defense, the economy, international relations and terrorism issues in the CNN Republican National Security Debate, moderated by Wolf Blitzer, in Washington at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday on CNN, the CNN mobile apps and CNN.com/Live.
New York (CNN) -- "It would be an irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign problems," said Woodrow Wilson during his presidential campaign 100 years ago.
World War I soon intruded on his plans -- and international conflicts have not stopped intruding on America since. We now see that foreign policy is largely what a president does, despite all the domestic focus of presidential campaigns.
That's why it's pathetic that so little time has been spent on this serious business of being president during dozens of Republican debates to date.
Tuesday's CNN National Security Debate in Washington will attempt to remedy that, but it finds a GOP field that is fractured and philosophically incoherent when it comes to foreign policy. In the wake of the Bush Doctrine, Republicans are torn between neoconservatives and neo-isolationists, united by little more than reflexive partisan opposition to President Barack Obama.
This impulse is complicated because Obama has extended much of the substance of President George W. Bush's freedom agenda, even has he has changed the style.
America now tries to encourage freedom movements such as the Arab Spring from a distance or through coalition-driven interventions rather than trying to directly impose them. In addition, drone strikes against al Qaeda and the Taliban have increased dramatically under Obama's presidency, and an Afghanistan troop surge accompanied the declared drawdown in Iraq.
Yes, there has been hand-wringing and hesitation. And his initial can't-we-all-get-along impulses were wisely abandoned. But at the end of the day, Obama can say that he fulfilled his campaign promise to withdraw from Iraq and kill Osama bin Laden. So what can Republican opponents offer Americans as an alternative?
The front-runner, Mitt Romney, wraps status quo foreign policy in bellicose partisan rhetoric.
"If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your president. You have that president today," Romney said at a foreign policy speech at The Citadel military school in South Carolina this year. The idea that Obama is actively rooting for American decline doesn't even qualify as dog-whistle politics, but it is deeply disingenuous -- or, to put it more plainly, a lie.
In 2007, Romney appeared to waffle on the Iraq surge, and in this campaign, he has waffled about whether troops should stay in Afghanistan, settling on saying that Obama's withdrawal timetable is driven by domestic political deadlines. It's novel to hear Romney criticize anyone for taking positions out of political convenience. More importantly, it's worth noting that he doesn't say what he would do differently.
But beneath Romney's barbs, there are few dramatic practical policy changes from the approach taken by Obama. That is because Romney represents a reasonable foreign policy establishment position and because Obama has been far from radical in his foreign policy.
The America-apologizing, enemy-appeasing vision of Obama that Republicans like to run against is actually best embodied by one of their own on stage -- Ron Paul.
Give the libertarian candidate points for philosophic consistency -- he was saying that America provoked 9/11 back during the Bush era. And now, after the IAEA report said Iran was well on its way to achieving nuclear weapons, Paul asked why we couldn't just be friends with a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic.
It is in some ways a revival of an older Republican tradition -- an isolationism abandoned when Dwight Eisenhower defeated Robert A. Taft in the 1952 primary and was definitively replaced with neoconservative internationalism under George W. Bush. In the unlikely event that Ron Paul were to win the nomination, it would be interesting to see whether neoconservatives would reluctantly support Obama for re-election instead. I'd say yes.
As for the other poll-leading candidates, Herman Cain has trouble articulating any policy beyond 9-9-9. He stumbled when asked about Libya in a cringe-inducing editorial board meeting caught on video, but more importantly, the Hermanator didn't seem to know that China has been a nuclear power for more than 40 years. This, as much as the myriad harassment accusations, is a functional disqualifier. We need a leader who is also a reader.
Newt Gingrich's impulse is to out-hawk everyone else on stage while attacking Obama for harboring a "Kenyan anti-colonialist mindset." He ends up sounding like an overserved Dick Cheney.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry argued for zero-based budgeting for foreign aid in a recent debate but ran into PR problems when he included Israel in that otherwise base-pleasing bid. The foreign policy area Perry knows best comes courtesy of the Texas border with Mexico, but his knowledge makes for policy positions too nuanced to play effectively to the conservative populist crowd on this issue.
It's sad to say that the most responsible Republican on the stage -- with the most foreign policy experience and the best chance of beating Obama -- is stuck at 1% in the polls. Jon Huntsman, former Utah governor and China ambassador, got less than three minutes total time to answer questions in the sole foreign policy debate to date. In a healthy GOP, it would be his turn to get a serious second look.
To get light as well as heat from this crowd, moderator Wolf Blitzer will have to push the candidates off talking points and towards specific policy proposals. For example, what would they have done differently than Obama on the question of intervention in Libya?
If it's unacceptable for Iran to get nuclear weapons, what would they do to stop Iran in the first 100 days of their presidency? How would they reinstate "don't ask, don't tell" in our military, as a practical matter?
Would they favor a public audit of the Pentagon and CIA -- and what about the security concerns that could emerge? How would they stop China from its rampant cyberespionage?
If they don't like the current Afghan strategy, what would they do differently?
Finally, what might be the toughest question: Name something besides killing bin Laden, that they believe Obama has done right in foreign policy.
National security is the core responsibility of the commander in chief. And maybe this debate can challenge the GOP to reconcile its differences and challenge the candidates to propose new solutions that the next president can implement.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.