Last night was the second debate between the GOP presidential candidates. So, as I did with the first one, let’s take a look back at the foreign policy aspects, shall we? I’ll be working off of the debate transcript published by the Washington Post. And, like last time, I won’t be considering immigration as a foreign policy issue because a) the candidates are dealing with it as a domestic policy issue and b) I don’t know much about the politics of immigration. I also won’t engage the question of whether Donald Trump can be trusted with access to the US nuclear arsenal.
(I apologize for the lateness of the post…teaching tends to get in the way of blogging)
The first serious foreign policy question was to Trump concerning Russia:
TAPPER: Thank you, Dr. Carson. Let’s move to Russia if we could.
Russia is sending troops and tanks into Syria right now to prop up a U.S. enemy, Bashar al-Assad. President Obama’s incoming top general says, quote, “Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security.”
Mr. Trump, you say you can do business with President Vladimir Putin, you say you will get along, quote, “very well.” What would you do right now if you were president, to get the Russians out of Syria?
TRUMP: So, number one, they have to respect you. He has absolutely no respect for President Obama. Zero.
Syria’s a mess. You look at what’s going on with ISIS in there, now think of this: we’re fighting ISIS. ISIS wants to fight Syria. Why are we fighting ISIS in Syria? Let them fight each other and pick up the remnants.
I would talk to him. I would get along with him. I believe — and I may be wrong, in which case I’d probably have to take a different path, but I would get along with a lot of the world leaders that this country is not getting along with.
We don’t get along with China. We don’t get along with the heads of Mexico. We don’t get along with anybody, and yet, at the same time, they rip us left and right. They take advantage of us economically and every other way. We get along with nobody.
I will get along — I think — with Putin, and I will get along with others, and we will have a much more stable — stable world.
TAPPER: So, you — just to clarify, the only answer I heard to the question I asked is that you would — you would reach out to Vladimir Putin, and you would do what? You would…
TRUMP: I believe that I will get along — we will do — between that, Ukraine, all of the other problems, we won’t have the kind of problems that our country has right now with Russia and many other nations.
I don’t even know where to begin with this. Trump continues his basic practice of asserting his ability to do everything and succeed without demonstrating any understanding of the issues. Why will he get along with Putin? Because he says he will. No discussion of the serious policy disagreements or issues that matter. He’ll just be able to create a more stable world. The one moderately interesting thing in Trump’s response is about ISIS, where he says the US should stay out of Syria and allow ISIS and Assad to kill each other. Now, this happens to be my understanding of Obama’s (unstated) position towards Syria: it’s a mess, there’s no good options for the US, so just let ISIS, Assad, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, and everyone else slog it out. Yes, it may be a horrifying application of realpolitik as it essentially accepts the gruesome humanitarian disaster in Syria as an acceptable price. But, it’s not an unreasonable position.
The same question is then posed to Senator Marco Rubio:
TAPPER: Senator Rubio, you’ve taken a very different approach to the — the question of Russia. You’ve called Vladimir Putin a, quote, “gangster.”
Why would President Rubio’s approach be more effective than President Trump’s?
RUBIO: Well, first of all, I have an understanding of exactly what it is Russia and Putin are doing, and it’s pretty straightforward. He wants to reposition Russia, once again, as a geopolitical force.
He himself said that the destruction of the Soviet Union — the fall of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, and now he’s trying to reverse that.
He’s trying to destroy NATO. And this is what this is a part of. He is exploiting a vacuum that this administration has left in the Middle East.
Here’s what you’re gonna see in the next few weeks: the Russians will begin to fly — fly combat missions in that region, not just targeting ISIS, but in order to prop up Assad.
He will also, then, turn to other countries in the region and say, “America is no longer a reliable ally, Egypt. America is no longer a reliable ally, Saudi Arabia. Begin to rely on us.”
What he is doing is he is trying to replace us as the single most important power broker in the Middle East, and this president is allowing it. That is what is happening in the Middle East. That’s what’s happening with Russia, and…
TAPPER: Thank you, Senator Rubio.
This a serious and thoughtful analysis. I’d argue that Putin, at the moment, is being driven more by the need to divert attention from the collapsing Russian economy than a true desire to reestablish Russia as a global power. But Rubio is right to point out that Putin is exploiting the American strategy (or lack thereof) in Syria to raise Russia’s profile and perhaps fix some of the damage done by Russian adventurism in Ukraine. Especially compared to the simplistic buffoonery of Trump, Rubio’s answer comes off as intelligent.
The Russia question is then directed to Carly Fiorina:
TAPPER: Ms. Fiorina, you have met…
FIORINA: Having met Vladimir Putin, if I may…
TAPPER: …yeah, you’ve met Vladimir Putin. Yes.
FIORINA: Having met Vladimir Putin, I wouldn’t talk to him at all. We’ve talked way too much to him.
What I would do, immediately, is begin rebuilding the Sixth Fleet, I would begin rebuilding the missile defense program in Poland, I would conduct regular, aggressive military exercises in the Baltic states. I’d probably send a few thousand more troops into Germany. Vladimir Putin would get the message. By the way, the reason it is so critically important that every one of us know General Suleimani’s name is because Russia is in Syria right now, because the head of the Quds force traveled to Russia and talked Vladimir Putin into aligning themselves with Iran and Syria to prop up Bashar al- Assad.
Russia is a bad actor, but Vladimir Putin is someone we should not talk to, because the only way he will stop is to sense strength and resolve on the other side, and we have all of that within our control.
We could rebuild the Sixth Fleet. I will. We haven’t. We could rebuild the missile defense program. We haven’t. I will. We could also, to Senator Rubio’s point, give the Egyptians what they’ve asked for, which is intelligence.
We could give the Jordanians what they’ve asked for…
TAPPER: Thank you, Ms. Fiorina.
FIORINA: …bombs and materiel. We have not supplied it…
TAPPER: Thank you.
FIORINA: …I will. We could arm the Kurds. They’ve been asking us for three years. All of this is within our control.
This answer is a mixed bag. Increasing the size of the US Navy is a much-discussed topic, so there’s nothing wrong with that suggestion. As I discussed in my analysis of the first debate, I’m skeptical of the effectiveness and value of the theater-based BMD programs in eastern Europe. Increasing “aggressive” military exercises in the Baltics? Whatever…not a big deal either way. Her claim that Russia is upping its involvement in Syria after being talked into it by General Suleimani of the Iranian Quds force ignores the historic relationship between Russia and Syria. It also fails to acknowledge the current incentives for Russia. Finally, while arming the Kurds is a popular option, a president would, of course, have to consider how Turkey would react to such an action. Perhaps it’s not fair to expect such nuance in this format. But to just toss out arming the Kurds without even a nod to the certain stresses that would create with an important NATO ally is problematic.
The questions then shift to Iran, with question for Senator Ted Cruz:
TAPPER: Senator Cruz, Governor Kasich says that anyone who is promising to rip up the Iran deal on day one, as you have promised to do, is, quote, “inexperienced,” and, quote, “playing to a crowd.” Respond to Governor Kasich, please.
CRUZ: Well, let me tell you, Jake, the single biggest national security threat facing America right now is the threat of a nuclear Iran. We’ve seen six and a half years of President Obama leading from behind. Weakness is provocative, and this Iranian nuclear deal is nothing short of catastrophic.
This deal, on its face, will send over $100 billion to the Ayatollah Khamenei, making the Obama administration the world’s leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism.
CRUZ: This deal abandons four American hostages in Iran, and this deal will only accelerate Iran’s acquiring nuclear weapons. You’d better believe it. If I am elected president, on the very first day in office, I will rip to shreds this catastrophic Iranian nuclear deal.
TAPPER: Why is that not, as Governor Kasich says, playing to the crowd and an example of you being inexperienced?
CRUZ: Well, let’s be clear when it comes to experience. What President Obama wants to do is he’s run to the United Nations, and he wants to use the United Nations to bind the United States, and take away our sovereignty. Well, I spent five and a half years as a Solicitor General of Texas, the lead lawyer for the state, in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, and I went in front of the Supreme Court, and took on the world court of the United Nations in a case called Medellin v. Texas, and we won a historic victory saying the World Court, and the U.N., has no power to bind the United States, and no President of the United States, Republican or Democrat, has the authority to give away our sovereignty.
And, so, if there’s anyone up here who would be bound by this catastrophic deal with Iran, they’re giving up the core responsibility of commander in chief, and as president, I would never do that.
To my mind, Cruz is little more than a sophist, willing to say anything he believes will play to his base. As with Trump, there’s nothing serious here. He doesn’t like the Iran deal, but doesn’t explain why. He doesn’t like the UN or international law, but ignores that fact that the very power of sovereignty allows a president to make binding deals that might limit that sovereignty. His interpretation of the decision in Medellin v Texas is is a bit bizarre. The Court did not find that the “World Court” (I assume he means the International Court of Justice) or the UN has no power to bind the US; rather, it found that neither the treaty creating the ICJ nor the subsequent Protocol of the Vienna Convention were self-executing, and thus did not own their own create binding US law. However, different treaties or agreements could indeed do this. Even his use of the term World Court is troubling. Presumably Cruz knows that there is no such thing and that the case dealt with the ICJ. I’m guessing he thinks that World Court sounds more black helicopter-y and thus more dangerous to his conception of US interests.
Governor John Kasich got to weigh on the same question:
KASICH: Well, let me just say this. First of all, I think it’s a bad agreement, I would never have done it. But, you know, a lot of our problems in the world today is that we don’t have the relationship with our allies. If we want to go everywhere alone, we will not have the strength as (ph) if we could rebuild with our allies.
Now, this agreement, we don’t know what’s going to happen in 18 months. I served on the Defense Committee for 18 years. I’ve seen lots of issues in foreign affairs, and foreign — in terms of global politics, you have to be steady.
Now, here’s the — if they cheat, we slap the sanctions back on. If they help Hamas, and Hezbollah, we slap the sanctions back on. And, if we find out that they may be developing a nuclear weapon, than the military option is on the table. We are stronger when we work with the Western civilization, our friends in Europe, and just doing it on our own I don’t think is the right policy.
A very thoughtful answer. Regardless of what one thinks of the Iran deal, it would be recklessly irresponsible to take any action without consideration of the positions of the other European powers or what abrogating the agreement would do to US standing. And Kasich is right to remind everyone that nothing in the deal prevents the US from using military force if Iran violates it.
The theme then shifts to the proper response to the recent Chinese behavior with a question for Senator Rand Paul:
TAPPER: I want to go to Senator Paul. Senator Paul, the White House is rolling out the red carpet next week for the President of China, President Xi. Governor Walker says that President Obama should cancel the state dinner because of China’s currency manipulation, and because of China’s alleged cyber attacks against the United States.
Is Governor Walker right?
PAUL: I think this goes back to essentially what we’ve been saying for the last two or three questions. Carly Fiorina also said we’re not going to talk with Putin. Well, think if Reagan had said that during the Cold War? We continued to talk with the Russians throughout the Cold War which is much more significant that where we are now.
Should we continue to talk with Iran? Yes. Should we cut up the agreement immediately? That’s absurd. Wouldn’t you want to know if they complied? Now, I’m going to vote against the agreement because I don’t think there’s significant leverage, but it doesn’t mean that I would immediately not look at the agreement, and cut it up without looking to see if whether or not Iran has complied.
The same goes with China. I don’t think we need to be rash, I don’t think we need to be reckless, and I think need to leave lines of communication open. Often we talk about whether we should be engaged in the world, or disengaged in the world, and I think this is an example of some who want to isolate us, actually, and not be engaged.
We do need to be engaged with Russia. It doesn’t mean we give them a free pass, or China a free pass, but, to be engaged, to continue to talk. We did throughout the Cold War, and it would be a big mistake not to do it here.
Paul comes off better here than he did in the first debate. But this answer is long on rhetoric and short on analysis or detail. Still, his claims that the US should talk to everyone and the Iran deal shouldn’t be automatically torn up are reasonable.
The question on China is then put to Governor Scott Walker:
TAPPER: Governor Walker, Senator Paul seemed to suggest…
TAPPER: …that canceling the state dinner would be rash, and reckless.
WALKER: Two parts to that, one on China, one back for a second on Iran.
When it comes to China, why would we be giving an official state visit to a country that’s been involved in a massive cyber attack against the United States? That’s not just a visit, that’s a 21 gun salute on the South Lawn of the White House. It just doesn’t make any sense. If we’re ever going to send a message to them, wouldn’t this be the time, when they’ve issued this, sort of, massive attack against us?
And, Jake, for the question, I was one of the first ones to call for terminating the bad deal with Iran on day one. The President came after me and said I need to bone up. You know, the President who called ISIS the JV squad said I needed to bone up.
The reality is it’s a bad deal on day one, and it’s a bad deal because this president has allowed Iran to go closer, and closer.
I’d love to play cards with this guy because Barack Obama folds on everything with Iran. We need a leader who’s going to stand up, and actually (INAUDIBLE)…
It’s not unreasonable to suggest that China needs to pay some kind of price for the recent cyber attack; President Obama is considering imposing sanctions on China as punishment. The rest of the answer is just bluster.
Next up on the China question, Governor Jeb Bush:
TAPPER: Governor Bush, your father was the chief diplomatic envoy to China back when Nixon opened relations to China. Is Scott Walker’s approach the right one, canceling the state dinner?
BUSH: No, I don’t think so, but we need to be strong against China. We should use offensive tactics as it relates to cyber security, send a deterrent signal to China. There should be super sanctions in what President Obama has proposed. There’s many other tools that we have without canceling a dinner. That’s not going to change anything, but we can be much stronger as it relates to that.
As it relates to Iran, it’s not a strategy to tear up an agreement. A strategy would be how do we confront Iran? And, the first thing that we need to do is to establish our commitment to Israel which has been altered by this administration. And, make sure that they have the most sophisticated weapons to send a signal to Iran that we have Israel’s back.
BUSH: If we do that, it’s going to create a healthier deterrent effect than anything else I can think of.
Is Bush seriously suggesting that the US needs to launch offensive cyber attacks against China in order to establish deterrence? Hopefully, the “offensive tactics” he’s referring to are the “super sanctions” he mentions in the next sentence. But sanctions aren’t really offensive, and they aren’t a deterrent; they’re a punishment. So either he’s just being sloppy with his terminology or he’s being really scary here.
How does he want to “establish” a commitment to Israel? I presume he means reestablish or strengthen or renew. Sending better weapons to Israel is a perfectly reasonable suggestion but other than that or ripping up the Iran agreement, it’s not clear what else the US should do to make nice to Israel.
Finally, Governor Mike Huckabee gets his chance:
TAPPER: …I want to turn to Governor Huckabee who has been very patient. Somebody had to be 11th, and he is, but, I do want to change the subject to the event that you had…
HUCKABEE: I would certainly love to get in on this, because I think the single…
TAPPER: … however you want, but I want to ask this question.
HUCKABEE: I’ve been patiently waiting, and I’m going to just say this about Iran.
TAPPER: All right, sir, go ahead.
HUCKABEE: Because I think it is incredibly important. This is really about the survival of Western civilization. This is not just a little conflict with a Middle Eastern country that we’ve just now given over $100 billion to, the equivalent in U.S. terms is $5 trillion.
This threatens Israel immediately, this threatens the entire Middle East, but it threatens the United States of America. And we can’t treat a nuclear Iranian government as if it is just some government that would like to have power. This is a government for 36 years has killed Americans, they kidnapped Americans, they have maimed Americans. They have sponsored terrorist groups, Hamas and Hezbollah, and they threaten the very essence of Western civilization.
To give them this agreement, that the president treats like the Magna Carta, but Iranians treat it like it’s toilet paper, and we must, simply, make it very clear that the next president, one of us on this stage, will absolutely not honor that agreement, and will destroy it and will be tough with Iran, because otherwise, we put every person in this world in a very dangerous place.
I have absolutely no idea what he means by saying that the Iranians are treating the deal like toilet paper. It’s not yet in effect, so how does anyone know whether Iran will comply with it or not?
The questions then turn to Syria and whether Congress should have voted to approve the use of force to punish Syria for its use of chemical weapons.
HEWITT: Thank you, Jake.
Mr. Trump, two years ago, President Obama drew a red line that the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad crossed, President Obama threatened to strike. He did not, his knees buckled.
We now have 4 million refugees, Syria is a living hell, and he turned to the Congress for the authority to back him up. You have three senators to your right that said, no. Do they bear responsibility for this refugee crisis, and what would you have done when Bashar Assad crossed the line?
TRUMP: I wouldn’t have drawn the line, but once he drew it, he had no choice but to go across. They do bear some responsibility, but I think he probably didn’t do it, not for that reason.
Somehow, he just doesn’t have courage. There is something missing from our president. Had he crossed the line and really gone in with force, done something to Assad — if he had gone in with tremendous force, you wouldn’t have millions of people displaced all over the world.
HEWITT: How much responsibility, Mr. Trump, do the senators hold?
TRUMP: They had a responsibility, absolutely. I think we have three of them here…
Sigh. Reasonable people can disagree about what the US should have done in Syria, but I don’t even know what to say about someone who thinks that the US should have deployed “tremendous force”. It’s reckless and irresponsible.
HEWITT: Senator Rubio…
TRUMP: I think they had a responsibility, yes.
RUBIO: Let me tell you — I will tell you we have zero responsibility, because let’s remember what the president said. He said the attack he would conduct would be a pinprick. Well, the United States military was not build to conduct pinprick attacks.
If the United States military is going to be engaged by a commander-in-chief, it should only be engaged in an endeavor to win. And we’re not going to authorize use of force if you’re not put in a position where they can win.
And quite frankly, people don’t trust this president as commander-in-chief because of that.
Rubio again comes off as a voice of reason (how much of that is a product of following Trump isn’t entirely clear). He is exactly right–even if he is unintentionally endorsing Obama’s strategy–that if you want to use force you only do so if you plan to do so with the intent to “win.” There was no reasonable way for the US to use force to achieve a favorable outcome in Syria so why use force at all.
HEWITT: Senator Paul?
HEWITT: Senator Paul? PAUL: I think this gets to the point of wisdom on when to intervene and when we shouldn’t. Had we bombed Assad at the time, like President Obama wanted, and like Hillary Clinton wanted and many Republicans wanted, I think ISIS would be in Damascus today. I think ISIS would be in charge of Syria had we bombed Assad.
Sometimes both sides of the civil war are evil, and sometimes intervention sometimes makes us less safe. This is real the debate we have to have in the Middle East.
Every time we have toppled a secular dictator, we have gotten chaos, the rise of radical Islam, and we’re more at risk. So, I think we need to think before we act, and know most interventions, if not a lot of them in the Middle East, have actually backfired on us.
TAPPER: Thank you, Senator Paul.
Paul seems to be working hard to make up for his performance in the first debate. This is a reasonable and rational assessment of the options available to the US in Syria.
Back to Rubio on the same question:
RUBIO: Hold on, a second, Jake, he asked me, as well. I’d like to actually…
TAPPER: That would be fair, you’re right. You’re the third senator.
RUBIO: … respond. I think I’m the first senator.
The No. 1 test for use of military force should be the vital national security interest of the United States. The reason why I opposed President Obama bombing Syria, is because he couldn’t answer the question what do you do if chemical weapons end up in the hands of radical Islamic terrorists like al-Nusra, like Al Qaida, like ISIS?
Now, I also want to respond to several folks up here who said we should trust this Iranian deal, see if the Iranians will comply.
Anyone who is paying attention to what Khamenei says knows that they will not comply. There is a reason Khamenei refers to Israel as the little Satan, and America as the great Satan.
RUBIO: In the middle of negotiating this treaty, Khamenei led the assembled masses in chanting, death to America. I’m reminded of a great editorial cartoon. It shows the Ayatollah Khamenei saying, “Death to all Americans,” and then it shows John Kerry coming back, saying, “Can we meet ya half way?”
We need a commander-in-chief who will stand up and protect this country. And I’ll tell you, I can’t wait to stand on that debate stage with Hillary Clinton and to make abundantly clear if you vote for Hillary, you are voting for the Ayatollah Khomeini to possess a nuclear weapon and if you elect me as president, under no circumstances will a theocratic ayatollah who chants death to America ever be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon.
Not a great answer from Rubio. First, it’s not clear how using force against Syria relates to using force against al Nusra, al Qaeda, or ISIS. Is he suggesting that the US needs to take the same action in each case (assuming that one of those other actors used chemical weapons)? A president needs to maintain flexibility and not be locked into an action because of a past action. Second, while his joke about Iranian anti-American rhetoric might have gotten some laughs, it’s far-fetched to hold it that language up as a true indicator of Iranian preferences.
Kasich then butts in:
KASICH: No one is — no — let me — let me suggest to you we believe that we operate better in the world when our allies work with us. President Bush did it in the Gulf War. We work better when we are unified.
Secondly, nobody’s trusting Iran. They violate the deal, we put on the sanctions, and we have the high moral ground to talk to our allies in Europe to get them to go with us.
If they don’t go with us, we slap the sanctions on anyway. If they fund these radical groups that threaten Israel and all of the West, then we should rip up the deal and put the sanctions back on.
And let me make it clear — let me make it clear…
KASICH: … if we think — if we think they’re getting close to a — to developing a nuclear weapon and we get that information, you better believe that I would do everything in my power as the commander-in-chief to stop them having a nuclear weapon.
CRUZ: Jake, Jake…
KASICH: We can have it, and we can have our allies, and we can be strong as a country, and we can project across this globe with unity, not just doing it alone. That is not what gets us where we want to get as a nation.
Kasich’s repeated emphasis on multilateralism is a welcome change from the determined efforts of most of the other candidates to act as if the US exists alone in the world. He also recognizes that the Iran deal isn’t the be-all, end-all of the Iranian nuclear question. If Iran violates the deal, the US will indeed have the ability to use military force, just as it does now.
TAPPER: Senator Cruz?
CRUZ: Jake, there is no more important topic in 2016 than this topic right here, and I’ve listened to several folks saying, “Well, gosh, if they cheat, we’ll act.”
We won’t know under this agreement — there are several facilities in Iran they designate as military facilities that are off limit all together. Beyond that, the other facilities, we give them 24 days notice before inspecting them. That is designed to allow them to hide the evidence.
And most astonishingly, this agreement trusts the Iranians to inspect themselves. That makes no sense whatsoever.
And let me know — President Obama is violating federal law…
TAPPER: Thank you, Senator.
CRUZ: … by not handing over the side deals, and we ought to see the United States Congress…
TAPPER: Thank you, Senator.
CRUZ: … stand up together and say, “Hand over this treaty, and protect this country.”
Cruz is willfully misconstruing the Iran deal here. It does not in any way allow the Iranians to “inspect themselves.” He also asserts that deal won’t allow the US or the international community to know if Iran is cheating. But here he is conflating the question of knowing exactly what Iran is doing with knowing whether Iran is obstructing the deal. As I pointed out in my earlier post on the Iran deal, if Iran blocks access to a requested site, stalls, and hides evidence, that behavior itself is a signal of Iran preferences. I wouldn’t expect Cruz to grasp such an argument.
The debate turned away from foreign policy issues for some time, returning with Fiorina’s bizarre attempt to connect Planned Parenthood and Iran:
FIORINA: Dana, I would like to link these two issues, both of which are incredibly important, Iran and Planned Parenthood.
One has something to do with the defense of the security of this nation. The other has something to do with the defense of the character of this nation. You have not heard a plan about Iran from any politician up here, here is my plan. On day one in the Oval Office, I will make two phone calls, the first to my good friend to Bibi Netanyahu to reassure him we will stand with the state of Israel.
The second, to the supreme leader, to tell him that unless and until he opens every military and every nuclear facility to real anytime, anywhere inspections by our people, not his, we, the United States of America, will make it as difficult as possible and move money around the global financial system.
We can do that, we don’t need anyone’s cooperation to do it. And every ally and every adversary we have in this world will know that the United States in America is back in the leadership business, which is how we must stand with our allies.
As regards Planned Parenthood, anyone who has watched this videotape, I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, it’s heart beating, it’s legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.
This is about the character of our nation, and if we will not stand up in and force President Obama to veto this bill, shame on us.
I don’t at all understand how the two are related; Fiorina just seems desperate to make a point about Iran. But what an absurd point. There is no scenario in which Iran, or any country for that matter, ever accepts a deal giving the international community “real anytime, anywhere inspections.” So if this is her necessary criterion, she is essentially rejecting the possibility of any deal.
The debate continues focusing on domestic issues for some time before returning to foreign policy.
TAPPER: I understand that Governor Bush’s name has been invoked, and then we can go to you, Senator Rubio.
BUSH: Here’s the lessons of history: When we — we pull back, voids are created. We left Iraq. We should’ve had a — a forces agreement to stay there with a small force, and instead of that, we politically and militarily pulled back, and now we have the creation of ISIS.
36 days ago in this very library, I gave a speech with a comprehensive strategy how to take out ISIS, and it requires American leadership and engagement. We don’t have to be the world’s policemen. But we certainly have to be the world’s leader.
We need to have — make sure that the world knows that we’re serious, that we’re engaged, that we’re not going to pull back, that — that our — that our word matters. And if we do that, we can create a force that will take out ISIS both in Iraq and in Syria, which will take a lot longer time now…
TAPPER: Thank you, Governor.
BUSH: … because of what President Obama’s done by pulling back.
Not an unreasonable argument, but an underwhelming one here. It would if he had gone into the details of his plan to defeat ISIS. In the speech he references, he discusses creating a no-fly zone over Syria, embedding US troops in Iraqi military units, and other actions like providing forward observers for rebel forces on the ground. None of these are unreasonable actions, but any action that places US troops on the ground or otherwise steps up US involvement needs to be taken in a broader sense of what the US willing to do. What happens if/when a US soldier is captured by ISIS? What happens if a Russian military unit is mistakenly attacked or vice versa? Actions cannot be taken in isolation as they open the possibility of different outcomes. These decisions need to be considered before intervening, not after. Maybe Bush is willing to take those actions, maybe not. But it’s not unreasonable for us to know.
RUBIO: I want to go even deeper — and I want to go even deeper in that direction, because I think the belief that somehow by retreating, America makes the world safer has been disproven every single time it’s ever been tried.
Syria’s a perfect example of it. The uprising in Syria was not started by the United States; it was started by the Syrian people. And I warned at the time — this was three and a half years ago — I openly and repeatedly warned that if we did not find moderate elements on the ground that we could equip and arm, that void would be filled by radical jihadists.
Well, the president didn’t listen, the administration didn’t follow through, and that’s exactly what happened. That is why ISIS grew. That is why ISIS then came over the border from Syria and back into Iraq.
What is happening in that region is the direct consequence of the inability to lead and of disengagement. And the more we disengage, the more airplanes from Moscow you’re going to see flying out of Damascus and out of Syria…
Would seriously arming the rebels in the early stages of the Syrian civil war have prevented the rise of ISIS? Unlikely. ISIS moved over from Iraq into Syria to exploit the power vacuum that occurred when Assad began to lose control of the country. Would better armed rebels have been able to govern the lands they took from Assad? I’d bet against it. Rubio also seems to assume that a US program to arm Syrian rebels would have been successful. But that claim doesn’t seem to stand up in the light of revelations that a $500 million training program has resulted in only a handful of US trained fighters.
CARSON: I haven’t had an opportunity to weigh in on foreign policy, and I just want to mention that when the war, when the issue occurred in 2003, I suggested to President Bush that he not go to war? OK. So I just want that on the record.
And, you know, a lot of people are very much against us getting involved right now with global jihadism. And they refer back to our invasion of Iraq. And they seem to think that that was what caused it.
What caused it was withdrawing from there and creating a vacuum which allowed this terrible situation to occur. But it is very different from what is going on today. We’re talking about global jihadists who actually want to destroy us.
They are an existential threat to our nation. And we have to be mature enough to recognize that our children will have no future if we put our heads in the sand. We have to recognize we have two choices.
We either allow them the continue to progress and appear to be the winners, or we use every resource available to us to destroy…
TAPPER: Thank you, Dr. Carson.
CARSON: … them first.
In what way is ISIS an existential threat to the US? I’d really like to see an answer to this as it would reveal much about how Carson thinks about foreign policy. Regardless, the argument that the US should “use every resource available” to destroy ISIS would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous. Comments like this shouldn’t be dismissed as debate rhetoric; rather, they demonstrate fundamental misunderstandings of world politics and the dangers of inexperience.
Carson continues with unspecific recommendations to increase the size of the US military:
CARSON: I have no argument with having a strong leader, and to be aggressive where aggression is needed. But it is not needed in every circumstance. There is a time when you can use your intellect to come up with other ways to do things. And I think that’s what we have to start thinking about.
CARSON: There is no question that a lot of these problems that we have been talking about in terms of the international situation is because we are weak. It is because our Navy is so small. It is because our Air Force is incapable of doing the same things that it did a few years ago.
It’s because our Marines Corps is not ready to be deployed.
TAPPER: Thank you, Dr. Carson.
CARSON: There are a lot of problems that are going on, and we need to solve those problems, we need to build up our military…
RUBIO: But radical terrorism cannot be solved by intellect. It cannot — they require — what they need, is they need an operating space. That’s what Afghanistan was for Al Qaida. It was a vacuum that they filled, and they created an operating space.
That’s why they had to be drawn out of there. That’s why they had to be destroyed. It is the reason why ISIS has grown as well. We allowed them — we allowed a vacuum to emerge in Syria. They used it as an operating space to grow; and today they’re not just in Iraq and Syria anymore, they’re now in Libya, conducting operations in the Sinai.
They’re now in Afghanistan, trying to supplant the Taliban as the most powerful radical jihadist group on the ground there, as well. You cannot allow radical jihadists to have an operating safe haven anywhere in the world.
Yes, groups like ISIS and al Qaeda thrive in areas where states are unable to exert legitimate authority. So what’s the solution? Rubio gives no indication.
TAPPER: Governor Walker, there is a big debate now, we have been talking about ISIS here and there in this discussion, there a big debate right now about whether or not to send more U.S. troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
In the first debate earlier this evening, Senator Lindsey Graham argued that candidates are only serious about fighting ISIS if they’re willing to send 10,000 U.S. troops to Iraq, 10,000 U.S. troops as part of a coalition to Syria.
Governor Walker, you say, you just told me a few days ago that the 3,000 U.S. troops there right now are enough, as long as the rules of engagement are changed.
What do you know that Senator Graham doesn’t know?
WALKER: To be clear, what I said the other day was that we need to lift the political restrictions that are already in play. Barack Obama’s administration has put political restrictions on the military personnel already in Iraq.
We need to lift those and then we need to listen to our military experts, not the political forces in the White House, but our military experts about how many more we sent in. And we certainly shouldn’t have a commander-in-chief who sends a message to our adversaries as to how far we’re going to go, and how far we’re willing to fight, so I’m not putting a troop number.
What I’m saying is lift the political restrictions. When you do that, you empower our military personnel already there to work with the Kurd and the Sunni allies, to reclaim the territory taken by ISIS. And to do so in a way that allows that ISIS doesn’t go back in Syria, as we were just talking about here.
That is the fundamental problem going forward. We have a president — and Hillary Clinton was a part of this, by the way, who has made political decisions for our men and women in uniform. I want the men and women at home to know, if I’m commander-in-chief, I will only send you into harm’s way when our national security is at risk. And if we do, you know you’ll have our full support, the support of the American people, and you’ll have a clear path for victory.
A solid answer from Walker. It’s been a serious criticism that Obama hampers American military effectiveness by announcing limits and withdrawal deadlines, as he did while announcing his own “surge” in Afghanistan. I would have liked to see Walker directly answer the question posed to him about whether he would increase US troop presence in Iraq and Syria. Oh well.
TAPPER: Thank you, Governor.
Senator Paul, I want to go to you, because you have said that the boots on the ground to fight ISIS need to be Arab boots. We just learned today that despite the Obama administration spending $500 million to help create those Arab boots, there are only four or five U.S. trained fighters in Syria fighting ISIS.
What does that say to you about the effectiveness of the idea of the boots on the ground need to be Arab boots?
PAUL: If you want boots on the ground, and you want them to be our sons and daughters, you got 14 other choices. There will always be a Bush or Clinton for you, if you want to go back to war in Iraq.
But the thing is, the first war was a mistake. And I’m not sending our sons and our daughters back to Iraq. The war didn’t work. We can amplify those who live there.
The Kurds deserve to be armed and I’ll arm them. We can use our Air Force to amplify the forces there. But the boots on the ground need to be the people who live there.
My goodness, I’m still upset with the Saudi Arabians for everything they do over there. They’ve funded the arms that went to the jihadists. They’re not accepting any of the people, any of the migrants that have been — the refugees that are being pushed out of Syria. Saudi Arabia is not accepting one.
Why are we always the world’s patsies that we have to go over there and fight their wars for them? They need to fight their wars, we need to defend American interests, but it is not in America’s national security interests to have another war in Iraq.
After supporting Kim Davis, Paul seems eager to reestablish his libertarian credentials. We already know he’s against most foreign interventions. He also argues for arming the Kurds without consideration for Turkish interests. Not much new here.
KASICH: Can I just — can I — Jake, can I just make one point on this whole military discussion?
KASICH: I called for boots on the ground many months ago in a coalition with our friends who share our interest. You know, you win a battle with the military, and when we go somewhere, we need to be mobile, and lethal. We need to take care of business, and we need to come home.
But, we face, also, a bigger war — and you win the bigger war with the battle of ideas. You wonder why young people, and educated people, rich people, schooled people, have tried to join ISIS.
Western civilization, all of us, need to wake up to the fact that those murderers and rapists need to be called out, and in Western civilization we need to make it clear that our faith in the Jewish and Christian principals force us to live a life bigger than ourselves…
TAPPER: …Thank you, Governor…
KASICH: …to make (ph) centers (ph) of justice so that we can battle the radicals, call them out for what they are, and make sure that all of our people feel fulfilled in living in Western civilization…
TAPPER: …Thank you, Governor. Dana Bash…
KASICH: …This is a giant battle in the world today…
Whether one supports ground forces in Syria or not, if the US decides to take such action it should be done in conjunction with US allies. Kasich continues his wise and lonely support for multilateralism. But his claim that Jewish and Christian principles need to work to “make centers of justice so that we can battle the radicals” is a bit bizarre. If anything, doing that would further alienate Muslims and provide more fodder to the radical argument that Muslims have no place in the west.
That, more or less, concludes the foreign policy content of the debate.
To my mind, Kasich and Rubio come off as the only serious and thoughtful candidates. Bush isn’t bad, but he doesn’t do a great job either. Paul gives us exactly what we expect. And the others come off as naive, inexperienced, or just wacky.