What Guantanamo Bay and a Former Chief Spook Tell Us About the 2016 Race

February 25, 2016

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The remaining GOP candidates will take to the stage tonight for yet another debate — their 10th so far. But with Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Carly Fiorina gone from the field since the last debate, the dynamics are quickly changing. With Super Tuesday just days away, how will the politics of national security play into the GOP nomination battle? As for the Democrats, now that Bernie Sanders is getting foreign policy advice, will he start tackling issues and bring the commander-in-chief test into play?

Republicans weigh in on Guantanamo Bay

President Obama announced his renewed commitment to closing the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay this week. The field of candidates seeking to replace him responded predictably. Republicans condemned the plan:

In doing so, Marco Rubio also made reference to the Cuba issue he has been vocal on: “This makes no sense to me. Number one, we are not giving back an important naval base to an anti-American communist dictatorship. Number two we are not going to close Guantanamo. In fact, we shouldn’t be releasing the people that are there now.”

Ted Cruz alluded to concerns over trying detainees in civilian courts and broader fears about relocating them inside the United States: “Not only are we not going to close Guantanamo — when I am president, if we capture a terrorist alive, they are not getting a court hearing in Manhattan. They are not going to be sent to Nevada. They are going to Guantanamo and we are going to find out everything they know.”

Donald Trump responded in Trump fashion: “This morning I watched President Obama talk about Gitmo, right, Guantanamo Bay — which, by the way we are keeping open. And we’re going to load it up with some bad dudes, believe me. We’re going to load it up.”

Is GITMO a wedge issue for Democrats?

Both of the Democrats vying for the nomination issued statements supporting the plan:

Hillary Clinton’s support also acknowledges security concerns: “Over the years, Guantanamo has inspired more terrorists than it has imprisoned. It has not strengthened our national security; it has damaged it. That’s why I backed closing Guantanamo as a senator, and when I ran for president in 2008, as did both then-Senator Obama and Senator McCain. As President Obama’s Secretary of State, I appointed a special envoy and worked with our friends and partners around the world to repatriate or resettle prisoners, with all appropriate monitoring and security.”

Bernie Sanders’ own statement, though, called Clinton’s real commitment to closing the facility into question: “I am encouraged to see that the president is sending Congress a plan to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison. As I have said for years, the prison at Guantanamo must be closed as quickly as possible. … Others, including my opponent, have not always agreed with me.”

How foreign policy can still impact the race, even if voters don’t prioritize it

“Will foreign policy be decisive in the U.S. presidential election come November? Probably not.” So writes Michael Goldfien at The Hill. But does that mean it won’t influence the outcome? Not at all. There are three ways it could determine which candidates make it through the parties’ nominating gauntletsand face off in the general election. In short: (1) party establishment and donor support might yet hinge on candidates’ foreign policy views; (2) media validation of those views matters; and (3), while foreign policy credibility might not make candidates, it can certainly sink them.

We got 99 problems but foreign aid ain’t one?

Candidates have been asked about the Islamic State. And about Russia. And China, and cybersecurity, and North Korea, and Iran. But there’s one national security topic that hasn’t been discussed — something Tom Hart argues inUSA Today is “the anti-terror tool you never hear about.” Foreign aid. “In all, moderators have posed 1,087 questions of the candidates during this cycle’s main and undercard debates,” Hart writes. “Of those questions, 315 were on foreign policy or national security. But not one question addressed America’s global development strategy. Not one moderator asked about foreign aid or ending extreme poverty. Not one question explored the limited access to education of girls in the developing world. Not one question focused on the global fights against HIV/AIDS or malaria.”

The Clinton/Sanders foreign policy fight

Can it be called a fight if one side isn’t fighting? That’s the pattern that has taken shape in the Democratic race. Hillary Clinton routinely touts her foreign policy experience and readiness to be commander-in-chief. Bernie Sanders changes the subject to the economic inequality issues he wants to talk about. In fact, the Clinton campaign recently released an ad highlighting just that — asked about any issue, including national security, his response quickly shifts to Wall Street and the rich getting richer.

A few weeks ago, we noted the buzz about the “several hundred” foreign policy advisors that have coalesced around Clinton campaign. Meanwhile, Sanders was struggling to name anybody who he was receiving foreign policy advice from. However, as John Hudson notes for Foreign Policy, the Sanders campaign has — however belatedly — begun the process of staffing up on foreign policy. The good news is that voters might start to get more substance from him than his stock reminder that he voted against the Iraq War in 2002 when Clinton voted in favor.

That doesn’t mean that Sanders and Clinton supporters haven’t debated the merits of a likely Sanders foreign policy on behalf of their favored candidates. Right here at War on the Rocks, Sean Kay explains why Sanders “has a strong and compelling foreign policy case to make.” But as Mieke Eoyang contends, there are still plenty of “questions that Sanders should have to answer about what kind of commander-in-chief he would be.

Where do they really stand on ISIL, China, Pentagon reform, and more?

Last week we highlighted Gary Anderson’s profiles at Small Wars Journal of individual presidential candidates’ views on a range of key security issues that the next president will need to confront. He’s out with three new ones this week on Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich.

George W. Bush’s CIA director says Trump and Cruz don’t get it

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden was on “CBS This Morning” earlier this week and asked about specific comments on national security made by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. He’s not impressed.

Asked about a Trump statement that waterboarding works as an interrogation tactic, but that even if it didn’t, “they deserve it anyway,” Hayden replied: “This was never looking backward. This was trying to keep Americans safe looking forward. People can argue about what we did, but it was never, never a form of punishment.”

Of Cruz’s plan to “carpet-bomb ISIS into oblivion,” Hayden said it “would be immoral and it would be unworthy of a republic like ourselves,” and lamented the fact that the candidates are responding to difficult, complex challenges not with viable policy proposals but remarks made for “bumper stickers.”


John Amble is the managing editor of War on the Rocks. Want to get in touch? Drop us a line: NatSec2016@warontherocks.com.

Image: Photographers Mate 1st Class Shane T. McCoy