Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush listens as Donald Trump speaks during the first Republican presidential debate at the Quicken Loans Arena Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, in Cleveland.

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush listens as Donald Trump speaks during the first Republican presidential debate at the Quicken Loans Arena Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

National Security: Top Issue for GOP Voters, Sideshow in Debate

The U.S. is at war across the globe, but the leading Republican candidates spent most of their time at the two-hour debate on other subjects.

According to the leading GOP presidential candidates, the biggest national-security challenges facing the U.S. include Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

At the debate, hosted Thursday night by Fox News in Cleveland, the president and leading Democratic candidate to replace him were portrayed as the country’s main foreign-policy problem as much as the Islamic State, and far more so than Russia, which top military leaders have recently called the No. 1 threat, or other challenges. Several repeated familiar stump-speech criticisms of the “Obama-Clinton doctrine” for “leading from behind” and pursuing “disengagement.”

“Everywhere in the world that Hillary Clinton touched is more messed up today,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker interjected in a question to Donald Trump. He said Persian Gulf leaders told him disengagement is the “greatest challenge in the world today” — Iran deal aside. But he added the U.S. needs allies “not just in Israel.”

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas called the administration’s foreign policy a “disaster.” He also rejected the advice of its top military leaders: he cited Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey’s assessment that “there is no military solution” to ISIS, and called that “nonsense.” His bottom line: “If you wage jihad on America, then you are signing your death warrant.”

Many said the former secretary of state is their likely opponent. “If this election is a resumé competition, then Hillary Clinton’s gonna be the next president,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. The election instead should be about “the issues our nation and the world is facing today,” he said.

Overall, discussions of foreign policy and national security occupied less than one-third of the two-hour debate. Only half of the candidates spent more than two minutes talking about foreign policy and the military, according to a New York Times analysis of the debate, despite polls that indicate these issues, along with terrorism and other threats, are the most important for Republican voters. The top two in the polls — Donald Trump and Jeb Bush — hardly mentioned it relative to their speaking time.

The candidates made no mention of Africa, where terrorist groups are seeking a foothold, and gave barely a breath to China, cybersecurity, or veterans issues. They seemed most comfortable flatly rejecting the Iran deal, which many used to display their national security credentials — or deflect attention from them. Rubio and others have tried to connect the Iran deal to the ISIS fight. At the debate, Walker said, “This is not just bad with Iran, this is bad with ISIS. It is tied together.” But a number of experts have rejected this because Iran also wants to see the Sunni extremist terrorist group defeated.

Moderator Megyn Kelly asked former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has struggled to judge the invasion of Iraq but ultimately said it was in error, how he would explain that to families of the troops who died there.

“Knowing what we know now, with faulty intelligence, and not having security be the first priority when we invaded, it was a mistake,” Bush said, adding that Obama “abandoned Iraq.” Then he diverted: “To honor the people that died, we need to stop the Iran agreement, for sure, because the Iranian mullahs have their blood on their hands.”

Kelly asked Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who defended Obama last summer amid the rise of ISIS, why he blamed Republicans for the mess in Iraq. “Only ISIS is responsible for the terrorism,” Paul backtracked. “We do have to examine, how are we going to defeat ISIS?” His solution: “not arming the allies of ISIS … ISIS rides around in a billion dollars’ worth of U.S. Humvees.” Paul reiterated his longstanding calls for decreasing foreign assistance, even for Israel. “Even Benjamin Netanyahu said that ultimately, they will be stronger when they’re independent,” he said.

As for what they would do differently from the Obama administration, many said “increase defense spending.” No one noted that Congress imposed the budget caps on defense spending.

“We have weakened ourselves militarily to such an extent that it affects all of our military policies … the sequester is cutting the heart out of our personnel,” Ben Carson said — in response to whether police targeting blacks is today’s civil rights issue.

“The purpose of the military is kill people and break things,” former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee said — in response to a question about transgender troops openly serving. “We’ve decimated our military.”

One of the only points of extended contention was between Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. The New Jersey governor excoriated Paul for speaking out against the spread of government surveillance since 9/11. “We have to give more tools to our folks to be able to do that, not fewer,” said Christie, who served as a U.S. attorney from 2002 to 2008.

Paul responded, “I want to collect more records from terrorists, but less records from innocent Americans.”

Christie mocked him “sitting in a subcommittee, just blowing hot air about this.”

“I don’t trust President Obama with our records,” Paul shot back. “I know you gave him a big hug.”

Christie finished, “The hugs that I remember are the hugs that I gave to the families who lost their people on Sept. 11…And those had nothing to do with politics.”