Debate Shows GOP Candidates Remain Divided Over How To Use the Military—and When
On national security, the Republican field continues to offer as many plans filled with blanks as criticisms.
When 11 GOP candidates use much of their second presidential debate to re-litigate the Iraq War with each other, it’s symptomatic of a national-security identity crisis yet to be resolved more than a decade after the last Republican president in the White House began it.
Foreign policy took center stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Wednesday during a week that showcased the myriad security challenges facing the country from Russia to Iran. None of the Republican rivals attempting to break out of Donald Trump’s shadow has yet to emerge as a frontrunner on the subject. The cacophonous result is a strategy in and of itself, and one that Trump has used to great success: keep it short on specificity and long on ambiguity, and let voters fill in the gaps with what they want to hear. As the businessman and entertainer put it: “We’ll have more of everything!”
When Trump was asked to name some of his military and foreign policy advisors, he deflected — “I’m meeting with people who are terrific people, but … it’s about judgement.”
“I'm a very militaristic person, but you have to know when to use the military,” Trump said. “I'm the only person up here that fought against going into Iraq.” Sen. Rand Paul, Ky., and neurosurgeon Ben Carson reminded viewers that they too opposed the invasion. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie defended President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida argued that Obama, not Bush, lost the Iraq War.
“We have to learn: sometimes the interventions backfire,” Paul said. “The Iraq War backfired and did not help us. We're still paying the repercussions of a bad decision.”
Bush countered, “Here’s the lessons of history: When we pull back, voids are created. We left Iraq … We don't have to be the world's policemen. But we certainly have to be the world’s leader.”
Rubio went with I told you so. “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 … That is why ISIS grew,” he said. “And the more we disengage, the more airplanes from Moscow you’re going to see flying out of Damascus and out of Syria.”
Trump told Bush, “Your brother’s administration gave us Barack Obama, because it was such a disaster.” That set Bush up for one of his biggest applause lines of the night: “There’s one thing I know for sure. He kept us safe.”
The exchange highlighted the GOP’s struggle to define a new national-security consensus. The candidates Wednesday night offered a wide range of options: return to traditional hawkishness as Sen. Ted Cruz, Tex., advocated, following the pendulum as it swings back toward intervention in the wake of the rise of the Islamic State? Or adopt a more measured use of military intervention that favors international alliances and reflects a continued wariness of large-scale deployments of U.S. troops, like what Ohio’s Gov. John Kasich put forth?
When CNN moderator Jake Tapper cited South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s pledge to dispatch 20,000 troops to fight ISIS in Syria and Iraq, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker declined to specify how many he’d send. But he said, “Barack Obama’s administration has put political restrictions on the military personnel already in Iraq. We need to lift those.”
“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,” Walker said.
Rubio said he and the other two senators on stage bear “zero” responsibility for the refugee crisis embroiling Europe.Obama deserves the blame, he argued, for balking on Syria years ago. “He said the attack he would conduct would be a pinprick. Well, the United States military was not built to conduct pinprick attacks,” Rubio said. “We’re not going to authorize use of force if you’re not put in a position where they can win.”
Paul staked out the opposing side of the spectrum. “If you want boots on the ground, and you want them to be our sons and daughters, you got 14 other choices,” Paul said. “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.”
Kasich, a longtime House Armed Services Committee member when he served in Congress, said the military must be efficient, not omnipotent. “I called for boots on the ground many months ago in a coalition with our friends who share our interest,” he said. “When we go somewhere, we need to be mobile and lethal. We need to take care of business and we need to come home.”
Military and Veterans
Many of the candidates recycled favored lines about Obama’s alleged decimation of the military and its shrinking size — and veterans continued to be largely absent from the discussion.
“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,” said Carson. “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.”
Carly Fiorina followed, “We need the strongest military on the face of the planet, and everyone has to know it.” She called for 50 Army brigades, 36 Marine battalions, and between 300 and 350 naval ships. Oh, and “care for our veterans so 307,000 aren’t dying waiting for health care.”
Military and defense leaders have pushed back against this narrative, while pointing the finger at Congress for refusing to find a solution to the budget impasse. Only Bush acknowledged the political roadblock to increased defense spending beyond the rhetoric, saying, “The first thing that we need to do is to stop the craziness of the sequester.”