Yes, I did watch the Republican debates so that you serious-minded defense types at War on the Rocks didn’t have slog through the two hours to know how the national security parts went. I admit there were moments when I had that 1950s horror movie reaction — as when Donald Trump doubled down on his shameful allegations of “evidence” those evil geniuses in the Mexican government were outsmarting us stupid Americans and sending criminals and rapists over the border. Or when not one but two Republican candidates for President seemed to believe Iran was supporting Islamic State. Or when two Republican candidates praised President Sisi of Egypt as the kind of ruler the middle east needs.
And there was no shortage of candidates giving set piece speeches instead of answering questions, as one would expect of politicians. But mostly the questioning was tough, with moderators several times demanding evidence for claims made by candidates. It was also pointed: Walker pressed on social conservatism, Trump confronted with derogatory comments about women, Carson asked why his lack of knowledge shouldn’t disqualify him, Bush asked to answer on dynastic politics.
For all the air of the circus coming to town, the debate actually did give a sense of the candidates. Bush was decent and uncomfortable except when talking passionately about education and how it links to our global competitiveness. Kasich exuded competence and holier-than-thou-ishness. Rubio looking to the future, eloquent on opportunity, smart on immigration (bonus points for knowing China and India are the top sources now). Walker solid but not terribly appealing, looking a little local. Christie a seasoned and effective brawler. Rand Paul so convinced he’s right he can’t see how convoluted his arguments are. Carson arguing sound principles and unsound policies. Cruz captivating in argument, but dislikable. Trump bombastic and caught out lying more than once.
Defense policy got hardly any play and offered fodder for the least well-framed question. Predictably, everyone except Rand Paul would increase defense spending. “Make our military strong again!” was their common rallying cry. Huckabee, afraid the military has become a social experiment, would let them get back to “breaking things and killing people.” Carson said “our generals are retiring because they don’t want to be part of this.” Christie would give us a 350 ship Navy. No one explained how they would pay for it. Kasich touted his budget cutting credentials, but had nothing to say about national security. Trump argued “this country owes 19 trillion dollars and they need somebody like me to straighten that out” (bonus to the moderators for pressing him on his business bankruptcies). Carson argued that the program to destroy our country entails driving wedges between Americans, driving up debt to unsustainable levels, stepping back from the world, and reducing our military’s ability to handle it — and by implication that’s what President Obama has done and what Hillary Clinton would support. Nice line from Paul on the debt: “we do not project power from bankruptcy court.”
Everybody was a mess on the Middle East. Ted Cruz thinks “speaking the truth” is evidently the way to defeat the Islamic State and dissed General Dempsey for not saying the words “radical Islamic terrorism.” Carson seemed to think political correctness is what needs fighting, and inverted the civil-military relationship so that the generals would have a free hand to win the wars (and sounded suspiciously close to endorsing torture). Rand Paul argued we should destroy the Islamic State…but not fight them. He seemed to believe we were actually arming the allies of the Islamic State and should stop. After arguing for disengaging from the Middle East, he argued we should have “negotiated from a position of strength” on Iran. Jeb Bush still doesn’t have a convincing answer to the Iraq question and conflated Iran and the Islamic State. Everybody – with the possible exception of Paul – would vacate the Iran deal, but nobody had any bright ideas about how to contain Iran’s multidimensional threat. Walker sounded trite, explaining he’d slap more sanctions on Iran and get the Europeans to follow. Huckabee ominously said of Iran “when somebody loads a gun and points it at your head, by God you’d better take them seriously,” but his prescription was unclear.
Christie and Paul wrangled over domestic surveillance. Paul claimed he’d collect more information on terrorists, less on Americans. Christie showed his prosecutorial chops, arguing “when you’re responsible for protecting the lives of American people” you have to make the system work, while Paul tried to shout him down. Walker got off a great riff about how the Russians and Chinese know more about what’s on Hillary Clinton’s server than does the U.S. Congress (his strategy for looking presidential was to keep a bead on Clinton rather than the other Republicans).
Walker also took a strong, detailed stand on shoring up Europe: deploy troops, arm Ukraine, reinstate the missile defense program (other candidates did not get the opportunity to answer that question) — and had the only mention of Europe on the night. Donald Trump gave the only mention of China. Foreign aid continues to be both maligned and misunderstood, with Paul and Christie agreeing we should “stop sending aid to countries that hate us.” Paul appears to believe foreign assistance is a major expense of the American government.
Veterans affairs was such an afterthought it was only addressed when moderators were prompted, and even then tacked onto the question about the role God plays in your life, after all but one candidate had already answered.
The juiciest moments were not about national security policy: a substantive exchange between Christie and Huckabee about entitlement reform, Trump proudly alleging he’d bought political influence (from Hillary Clinton, no less). The best line of the night, by Rubio, showing a very light touch in answering the question about God: “God has blessed the Republican party with some very good candidates, the Democrats can’t find one.”
And from the ideas expressed in this first debate, Republicans clearly don’t think that national security is going to be a determiner of who garners the Republican nomination. There was a chorus of criticism of President Obama’s policies, but little in the way of practical plans to improve upon them.
Best tweet of the night was from: @JFKucinich: This season of the Apprentice is BRUTAL
Kori Schake, Ph.D. is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.