The tenth Republican debate last night was an embarrassing display for all involved. Leaving aside the frequent shouting, hectoring, and whining from the different candidates, the discussion of policy was even more insipid than usual. The treatment of foreign policy seemed especially bad, but I suppose it was mostly the same things we’ve heard in the previous nine debates. Trump lied about his original support for the intervention in Libya, Rubio tried to have it both ways on who was responsible for regime change there, Kasich reminded everyone that his positions on Syria and Ukraine are terrible, and both Rubio and Cruz reaffirmed that they are “pro-Israel” fanatics.
There were a few brief moments of sanity scattered throughout the debate, but they were so short that they could easily be missed. Trump defended his “neutrality” rhetoric about Israel-Palestine while touting his “pro-Israel” credentials, and actually made sense about how negotiations work:
As president, however, there’s nothing that I would rather do to bring peace to Israel and its neighbors generally. And I think it serves no purpose to say that you have a good guy and a bad guy.
Now, I may not be successful in doing it. It’s probably the toughest negotiation anywhere in the world of any kind. OK? But it doesn’t help if I start saying, “I am very pro-Israel, very pro, more than anybody on this stage.” But it doesn’t do any good to start demeaning the neighbors, because I would love to do something with regard to negotiating peace, finally, for Israel and for their neighbors.
And I can’t do that as well — as a negotiator, I cannot do that as well if I’m taking big, big sides.
This is correct, and it should be uncontroversial to anyone except a fanatic. The hard-line candidates have once again succeeded in drawing attention to Trump’s relatively better judgment on certain foreign policy issues. They think that they are vilifying him by portraying him as a “moral relativist” (that was Cruz’s attack), but all they did was to broadcast just how unhinged and ideological they are in their extremely one-sided support. Even though Rubio and Cruz think they are inflicting damage on Trump, they are making him appear like a somewhat more credible general election candidate by emphasizing their own extremism on these issues.
Cruz made his usual valid criticisms of the Libyan war, and Kasich said the only sensible thing on foreign policy that he’s said during a debate:
Now, let’s talk about Libya. Libya didn’t go down because there was some people revolution. Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power and all these other people convinced the president to undermine Gadhafi. They undermined him, and now they have created a cesspool in Libya.
Unfortunately, Kasich went out of his way to present himself as an aggressive hard-liner on every other issue. He entertained the idea of regime change in North Korea:
Wolf, again, it would depend exactly what, you know, what was happening. What the situation was. But, if there was an opportunity to remove the leader of North Korea and create stability? [bold mine-DL] Because, I’ll tell you, you keep kicking the can down the road we’re going to face this sooner or later.
For some reason, many hawks now cling to this crazy assumption that overthrowing a foreign leader creates stability. This is how Jeb Bush talked about regime change in Syria. Creating stability is the one thing that regime change never does, and anyone that doesn’t understand that certainly shouldn’t be president.
Kasich said later in the debate that the U.S. should have supported rebels in Syria “long ago” because they “could have taken Assad out.” Presumably he thinks that would also “create stability” by collapsing the government and handing all of Syria over to jihadists. He also made what might have been the oddest statement on foreign policy all night:
[W]e’re going to have to work our way out of it, including the need to arm the Ukrainians. They have been ignored, and we need to help them as well and assert ourselves as America [bold mine-DL].
Kasich doesn’t even try to explain why it would be in America’s interests to help fuel a foreign conflict. He refers to a “need” to arm Ukraine that the U.S. doesn’t have. He justifies it by claiming that the U.S. should be “asserting” itself as if the U.S. hasn’t already done far too much of that over the last fifteen years.
All in all, last night’s debate reminded us why we wouldn’t really want any of these people as president, but it also showed that Trump was the least ideological and unreasonable of the bunch. That may not be saying much, but such is the sorry state of Republican foreign policy that this is apparently the best we can hope for.