Politics: Republicans Reveal Discord in Debate Over Dictators

A sharp move away from the adventurous foreign policy of George W. Bush

by Mark Thompson

Republican presidential candidates revealed just how far the Republican Party has moved in the decade since President George W. Bush called for spreading democratic principles through the Middle East, sometimes by force. Much of Tuesday’s debate focused on the role the U.S. has played in toppling them in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq and Libya—and trying to force out Bashar Assad in Syria—since the terror attacks of 9/11. The certainty that most dictators are bad, not just for their people but for American interests, was no longer a given for Republican candidates, as the U.S. struggles with militants exploiting the vacuums left behind by toppled authoritarian states.

“If you believe in regime change, you’re mistaken,” Kentucky Senator Rand Paul said during the Las Vegas debate.

“We keep hearing from President Obama and Hillary Clinton and Washington Republicans that they’re searching for these mythical moderate rebels,” Senator Ted Cruz of Texas complained. “It’s like a purple unicorn—they never exist. These moderate rebels end up being jihadists.”

Cruz said that the White House “and, unfortunately, more than a few Republicans” have made ridding the world of megalomaniacs like Muammar Gaddafi, who ruled Libya for 42 years until he was ousted and killed in 2011, more important than keeping Americans safe. “We were told then that there were these moderate rebels that would take over,” Cruz said. “Well, the result is, Libya is now a terrorist war zone run by jihadists.” Much the same thing happened in Egypt, he claimed, when “the Obama Administration, encouraged by Republicans,” ousted longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak, and is happening again in Syria.

“We need to learn from history,” Cruz said. “Assad is a bad man. Gaddafi was a bad man. Mubarak had a terrible human rights record. But they were assisting us—at least Gadhafi and Mubarak—in fighting radical Islamic terrorists.” If Assad is removed, “the result will be ISIS will take over Syria, and it will worsen U.S. national security interests.”

Marco Rubio, the Florida senator who pushed for Gaddafi’s ouster, saidrealpolitik sometimes requires distasteful partners. “We will have to work around the world with less than ideal governments,” he said, citing Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which caused heartburn in Amman and Riyadh.

Neurosurgeon Ben Carson said “the Middle East has been in turmoil for thousands of years,” and the idea that U.S. military involvement will straighten things out is misguided: “No one is ever better off with dictators but…we need to start thinking about the needs of the American people before we go and solve everybody else’s problems.”

Jeb Bush said toppling Saddam Hussein—a 2003 war initiated by his brother, President George W. Bush—was a good thing. But he added that its key lesson is that the U.S. must have “a strategy to get out” and leave a “stable situation” behind. That has never been a U.S. strength. Invasions are quick, easy and relatively cheap compared to the decades-long push to try to rebuild a more moderate nation to replace a dictatorship. Americans may dislike war, but they dislike pumping billions to rebuild shattered counties even more.

Paul agreed that it’s the what-comes-next question that has dogged U.S. policy since 9/11. “Out of regime change you get chaos,” he said. “From the chaos you have seen repeatedly the rise of radical Islam.” The issue is one of “the fundamental questions of our time,” and not necessarily black and white. “I don’t think because I think the [Iraq] regime change was a bad idea,” Paul said, “it means that Hussein was necessarily a good idea.”

For generations, the U.S. fought left-wing dictators (Fidel Castro in Cuba, for example) while bolstering right-wing autocrats (Augusto Pinochet in Chile). This was largely because of the Cold War, where leftist regimes allied themselves with the Soviet Union, and rightist ones cozied up to the U.S. But it has been 25 years since the Soviet Union’s demise. That’s unleashed all sorts of local tensions, ranging from nationalist to religious, that the Cold War had kept largely tamped down.

Nowhere has that energy exploded as quickly and violently as in the so-called arc of crisis stretching from northern Africa, through the Middle East, and on to the Central Asian states. Fueled by the nearly 1,500-year split between the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam, the collapsing regimes have entangled the U.S. in civil and religious wars and triggered the rise of terror groups like al Qaeda and ISIS.

“We’ve spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people,” Donald Trump said, referring to the eventual total price tag of the Afghan and Iraq wars. “It’s not like we had victory—it’s a mess.” While the debate over the pros and cons of backing—or, at least, not attacking—dictators will continue, no one on stage challenged Trump’s accounting.


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Donald Trump’s Powerful Ignorance

And four other lessons from Tuesday night’s Republican debate

Here are five things I noticed in last night’s debate:

 

1. Donald Trump has made fools of us all.

The consensus among the talking heads afterward was that Trump had done fine, maybe helped himself a little, certainly hadn’t hurt himself with his constituency. What were they watching? By any objective standard, Trump had a terrible debate. He said nothing substantive. He made faces–elementary-school faces—when he was attacked. He displayed his powerful ignorance: He had no idea what Hugh Hewitt was talking about when he was asked about the “nuclear triad.” This really is presidential politics for dummies: Control and use of our nuclear arsenal is perhaps the most serious presidential responsibility. Nuclear weapons are deployed in three ways—in land-based silos, in submarines, by aircraft. Three ways. The nuclear triad. This guy is running for president without the most basic vocabulary about weapons that could destroy the world. I suppose this doesn’t matter to his nitwit constituency—but it should. And if that constituency becomes a majority of our electorate, we are truly cooked. That the talking heads think Trump did okay because he didn’t offend his supporters represents journalistic malpractice…but I guess we’ve all been burned by predicting Trump’s demise in the past. The fact that he survives doesn’t make him any less disastrous.

2. Senators Cruz and Rubio lost when they were right.


Their mini-debate was fun to watch. Both are intelligent and articulate—although I think Cruz has a better strategic sense of what he is doing and is running the smarter campaign. It is a testament to the current incoherence of the Republican constituency that each man’s “weakness” was actually a strength. Rubio was entirely candid about immigration. He offered a realistic solution to the problem—but his solution does not involve the deportation of 12 million illegals and so he lost that particular debate to Cruz, who summoned the newly terrifying spectra of Chuck Schumer and called the plan “amnesty.” For his part, Cruz is absolutely right to be wary about “regime change” in the Middle East. It’s been a disaster. But that won’t help him in a party where neoconservatives now control the foreign policy debate.

3. The Governors won.


In fact, Chris Christie put both Cruz and Rubio in their place when he said after a Cruz-Rubio exchange: “If your eyes are glazed over like mine, this is what it is like to be on the floor of the United States Senate…I mean endless debates about how many angels on the head of a pin from people who have never had to make a consequential decision in an executive position.” Christie’s toughness is an informed version of Trump’s posturing. It is simple, compelling, and probably not as dangerous as it sounds–asked if he would shoot down Russian planes if they violated a Syrian no-fly zone, he said yes. This is the sort of tough talk that Ronald Reagan deployed successfully…while simultaneously signaling to the Soviets that he was ready to negotiate seriously with them. The will to bluster was the difference between Reagan and George H.W. Bush. It’s the difference between Christie and Jeb Bush. Both Bushes were better informed than their rivals, but less given to melodrama–although, over time, according to Jon Meacham’s biography of Bush the Elder, even HW came to appreciate the role Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric played as a negotiating tool. (Jeb Bush had some very good moments in the debate, directly attacking and flustering Trump–but he has too much respect for the process, is responsible to the point of abstraction in his answers and his opening and closing statements were close to incomprehensible.)

4. The others lost.


Carly Fiorina’s act has grown old. Rand Paul is smart, and generally reasonable on foreign policy, but he belongs to a different party than the Republicans. As Michael Scherer pointed out in his reliably sharp minute-by-minute account of the debate, John Kasich was done in by his spastic karate chop hand motions–he may been the first candidate I’ve ever seen who was rendered incoherent by his own body language. Ben Carson offered a moment of silence for the San Bernardino victims; he has never belonged on this stage–but then, neither has Trump–and Carson, at least, wreaths his presidential incompetence in dignity.

5. Fact Check.


Three persistent errors or elisions should be pointed out. The first is the matter of the defense cuts–the Republican party agreed to these as part of a deficit reduction maneuver called the sequester, because it opposed the tax increases (or loophole closing) necessary to make an actual deal with the Democrats. The GOP thereby showed its priorities: low taxes were more important than national security–a point that Hillary Clinton will doubtless make in the fall (although I’m not so sure that defense spending on weapons we don’t need–i.e. more ships–will increase our security). Second, the much ballyhooed “flood” of illegal immigrants doesn’t exist; indeed, the numbers of illegals crossing the border have declined drastically during the Obama years. Third, Iran will get sanctions relief–an estimated $100 to $120 billion–only after it complies with the nuclear agreement and destroys its enriched uranium stockpile, dismantles 75% of its centrifuges and makes other significant concessions. If Iran doesn’t do those things, there will be no sanctions relief.

11:36 AM ET via TIME


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