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Home/Daniel Larison/Foreign Policy and the Fifth Republican Debate

Foreign Policy and the Fifth Republican Debate

Last night’s main debate covered foreign policy and national security issues almost exclusively. This allowed for a number of important exchanges and some revealing moments for some of the candidates, and it also showed for the most part that the modern GOP remains unhinged and dangerous in their view of foreign threats and their preferred responses to them. The Republican field was obsessed with ISIS and the Near East, and for the most part other foreign policy issues came up during the debate only when they were in some way related to events in Syria and Iraq. More than usual, the moderators and the candidates were oblivious to the rest of the world and U.S. policies elsewhere. There were a few bright spots for conservatives and libertarians interested in a restrained foreign policy, but they were very few and far between.

Compared to the reckless hard-line views espoused by Rubio, Kasich, Christie, and Fiorina, Trump and Cruz sometimes sounded quite reasonable, and then we would be reminded that the latter were perfectly fine with committing massive war crimes in the name of being “tough.” When Cruz was pressed on his “carpet bombing” rhetoric about ISIS, he wouldn’t own up to the implications of what he said, but stuck with a position that would have the U.S. kill tens of thousands of civilians under ISIS’ control:

For their part, the hard-liners were eager to endorse policies that risked war with Russia (e.g., a “no-fly zone” in Syria), but wouldn’t acknowledge that there was any risk to what they were proposing. Earlier in the debate, Christie insisted that the fight with jihadists amounted to WWIII (consistent with stupid rhetoric he’s used before), but was oblivious to the risk of provoking a war with a nuclear-armed state.

Paul had his best debate so far. He excoriated Rubio on immigration, surveillance, and foreign policy, and he seemed determined to sink him. He also had a strong exchange with Christie over Syria and Russia and got the better of him, whose clueless belligerence was on full display:

Well, I think if you’re in favor of World War III, you have your candidate. You know, here’s the thing. My goodness, what we want in a leader is someone with judgment, not someone who is so reckless as to stand on the stage and say, “Yes, I’m jumping up and down; I’m going to shoot down Russian planes.” Russia already flies in that airspace.

Paul also correctly pointed out that if the so-called “red line” had been enforced two years ago, it is likely that ISIS would now control the rest of Syria. Last night’s debate allowed Paul to play to his strengths on foreign policy and national security, and it offered a glimpse of the meaningful foreign policy debate that the Republican candidates should have been having over the last two years.

Trump made a strong statement about the futility of recent U.S. interventions, emphasizing that the U.S. got “nothing” from them, but then rambled about “taking the oil.” At another point, he demonstrated that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about when he flubbed a fairly simple question about modernizing the nuclear arsenal. His answer on Syria was that “we can’t be fighting everybody at one time,” which continues to make his position on Syria more responsible than the one held by most of his competitors. Cruz also scored a hit against Rubio’s support for the Libyan war.

Kasich distinguished himself as unusually clownish when he accepted at face value the so-called counter-terrorism coalition that Saudi Arabia cooked up. Not only are several of the countries that the Saudis named as members of their “coalition” denying involvement in the scheme, but the idea that the Saudis can be trusted to contribute to, much less lead, a group of states to combat terrorist groups is risible in light of their support and encouragement for jihadists over the decades. On Russia, he declared that “it’s time that we punched the Russians in the nose.” It was an absurd and dangerous comment, and it showed the extent to which hawks view heightened tensions with other states as if they are playground brawls rather than potential conflicts that could have serious consequences for both sides. Showing just how incoherent his arguments could be, he insisted on intervention in Syria while pretending that he opposed policing the world:

There are moderates in Syria who we should be supporting. I do not support a civil war. I don’t want to be policeman of the world. But we can’t back off of this.

Fiorina thought that the best way to secure Chinese cooperation against North Korea was to provoke China at every possible turn and to challenge their claims in the South China Sea:

I have done business in China for 25 years, so I know that in order to get China to cooperate with us, we must first actually retaliate against their cyber-attacks so they know we’re serious. We have to push back on their desire to control the trade route through the South China Sea through which flows $5 trillion worth of goods and services every year.

We cannot let them control the disputed islands, and we must work with the Australians, the South Koreans, the Japanese and the Filipinos to contain China. And then we must ask for their support and their help with North Korea.

That doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense, but for many hawks combativeness and confrontation seem to be ends in themselves.

Rubio was under the most pressure last night, and it was much more scrutiny than he is used to. While he didn’t crumble under the attacks from several sides, he didn’t offer a compelling defense of his record, either. He repeated his support for a more aggressive Syria policy, and claimed once again that the imaginary Sunni Arab army he has conjured up in his mind would do most of the fighting on the ground. As usual, he gave no explanation for why any of these states that aren’t even contributing to the air war against ISIS would risk their soldiers in a drawn-out ground war. He said they would have to be “worked on” to contribute more, which I suppose was his way of admitting that he has no idea how this will happen. He also managed to get away with talking about the spread of ISIS to Libya and Yemen without being challenged on the fact that these things have happened because of wars that he supported and, in the case of Yemen, still supports.

All in all, the debate was mostly disheartening for anyone interested in a sober and responsible approach to foreign policy issues. Alarmism, panic, and fear-mongering dominated the evening, and threat inflation ran rampant. There were a few notable and important exceptions to this, but on the whole the Republican candidates showed why their party isn’t and shouldn’t be trusted to conduct foreign policy.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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