A Satisfying Debate, but Not Meaty on National Security

August 7, 2015

With the exception of the penultimate question on “God,” which was so convoluted I cannot even remember what it was, I was thoroughly pleased with the questions and the answers throughout the event. There was a lot of policy being talked about tonight, in addition to standard recitations of talking points.  I was particularly taken by the exchange between Rand Paul and Chris Christie, whose views on the degree to which 4th Amendment Rights have been impacted by the events of the past fourteen years differ widely. There are huge and important questions at stake in this discussion, and I would like for that part of the debate to have gone on longer.

Unfortunately, there was very little national security to be had in this debate generally, and specifically, the candidate I support (although I am not officially associated with his campaign), Senator Marco Rubio—a member of both the Intelligence and Foreign Affairs Committees—did not get a single meaty traditional national security question in the entire debate.  He did however, show both deep knowledge and timely diplomacy by pointing out that the largest number of illegal immigrants coming to the United States is not from Mexico, but from a number of other Latin American nations, after Donald Trump had been asked about his previous comments asserting that the government of Mexico had been purposefully sending criminals northward.

There was some discussion of the Islamic State this evening, and both Rand Paul and Ted Cruz had opportunities to give their views on how they would deal with the group.  Senator Paul’s major contribution was that he would cut off aid to the Islamic State’s allies, which seems straightforward enough except for the inconvenient fact that the group has its own sources of funding—to include oil.  Senator Cruz was asked about his question to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs recently, in which he asked General Dempsey what it would take to defeat the Islamic State in 90 days.  General Dempsey apparently gave a politic answer, pointing to root causes and ideology and the like, an answer that left Cruz cold and which was likely to leave many Republican voters equally cold.

Ben Carson was asked about enhanced interrogation techniques, and whether he would reinstate the use of waterboarding, and though I thought he had a good night in general, his answer to the effect that “it’s nobody’s business” how we deal with terror suspects was somewhat unsatisfying.

Scott Walker had a good line in answering a question about which Arab partners he as president, would target for improved relations.  After reeling off a few countries which he acknowledged were already partners and friends, he recounted conversations he had with Arab leaders during a recent trip, in which they pointed to American disengagement as the greatest threat to security and stability.  The sentiment expressed by those Arab leaders is central to the foreign policy approach of my favored candidate, Marco Rubio, and I have a sense it is shared by almost all of the seventeen GOP candidates.

As a navalist, I was particularly glad to hear Chris Christie advocate for a 350 ship Navy, and rebuilding the military was a general theme across the panel.  I thought the questioning of Rand Paul on his budget proposal’s dim view on foreign aid to be fair and worthwhile, and he did a passable job of explaining why he had “evolved” on aid to Israel, although my gut tells me he’d rather just cut the foreign aid budget altogether.

The subject of the Iran deal came up, and without surprise, Walker, Paul, and Huckabee all repudiated it.  Huckabee had a typically poetic line (for him), riffing off Reagan’s “trust, but verify” line by saying President Obama’s approach to his political opponents in this matter was “trust Iran and vilify opponents.”  Shortly after this remark, I noted in my Twitter feed that potential future Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer had come out against the deal, which caused me to wonder if he were (in the president’s opinion) making common cause with the “Death to America” crowd in Iran.  But I digress.

So thin were the pickings on national security policy during tonight’s debate that some of you might not yet have a good idea where Marco Rubio stands on major issues of interest to the War on the Rocks readership.  I urge you to spend some time at the campaign’s “issues” site, and then read his just published piece in Foreign Affairs which lays out his vision for an American foreign policy underpinned by three pillars:  a renewal of American strength,  the protection of an open international economy in an increasingly globalized world, and the restoration of moral clarity regarding America’s core values and how we pursue them around the world.

Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC, and is the Assistant Director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower.

Image: Gage Skidmore, Flickr, CC