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Republican Debate Marked by Foreign-Policy Flubs, Side Steps, and Laugh Lines
From Donald Trump's big wall to Jeb Bush's Iraq miscue, the five most memorable moments of the Republican Party's big night in Cleveland.
Donald Trump said Mexican leaders were outsmarting their American counterparts by shipping the country’s criminals over the border. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said beating the Islamic State depended on first defeating President Barack Obama’s Iran deal. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz accused the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of speaking “nonsense.”
The 10 Republican candidates who took the stage in Cleveland for the most highly anticipated primary debate in recent American history spent most of their time talking about domestic issues like taxes (which they want to cut), abortion (which they oppose), God (who several said they hear from regularly), and Obamacare (which they want to repeal).
The most interesting moments, though, came when the Fox News anchors who moderated the debate — Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly, and Chris Wallace — turned to issues of foreign policy. Each of the candidates took turns deriding Obama as a weak and feckless leader who had failed to stand up to adversaries ranging from the Islamic State to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Apart from their unanimous opposition to the administration’s nuclear pact with Iran, though, many of the candidates spoke in generalities that sometimes made it hard to discern what they would actually do differently from Obama when it came to thorny issues like the spread of the Islamic State, frequently referred to as ISIS, and the future of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson ignored a direct question about whether he’d reinstate waterboarding. And Trump completely whiffed in describing his Obama-like opposition to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq (he said he came out against it in July 2004).
That’s not to say the candidates were dull when they talked about foreign policy. Far from it — many of the night’s most memorable and at times downright bizarre moments came when the questions concerned events taking place outside American borders. Here are the five that stood out the most:
1) Jeb Bush Stumbles Over Iraq, Again
So far in his campaign, Jeb Bush has struggled to distance himself from — but not disavow — the policies of his older brother, former President George W. Bush. The 2003 invasion of Iraq remains the toughest issue on which Jeb Bush has yet to square that family circle, and he flubbed an answer during the debate on whether he now would describe the war as a mistake. Instead, he tried to shift blame onto Obama, whose withdrawal from the country in 2011 helped pave the way, in the eyes of many critics, for the rise of the Islamic State. In doing so, Bush ham-handedly tried to tie the threat of the Islamic State to the administration’s nuclear deal with Tehran, which is now at the center of a fierce debate on Capitol Hill.
To honor the American soldiers and others who died in the Iraq war, Bush said, “We need to stop the Iran agreement, for sure, because the Iranian mullahs have their blood on their hands, and we need to take out ISIS with every tool at our disposal.”
The Iran deal, which Congress will vote on next month, is red meat to Republican leaders in Washington, and undoubtedly Bush was trying to curry favor with his party’s chattering class. The problem with that line of logic, however, is that Shiite Iran has sent troops to Iraq and Syria to fight the Sunni militants of the Islamic State — and has proved to be among the most effective ground forces in the war against the caliphate.
2) Ted Cruz Ridicules One of the Nation’s Top Generals
All the candidates predictably blasted Obama over his handling of the fight against the Islamic State, and a few said the U.S. military had been underfunded and neglected. But Cruz took the unusual step of singling out the country’s highest-ranking officer, Gen. Martin Dempsey, for ridicule.
“When I asked Gen. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, what would be required militarily to destroy ISIS, he said there is no military solution,” Cruz said. “That, with all due respect, is nonsense.”
Cruz, who has previously accused Dempsey of advocating “Medicaid” for Islamist extremists, said that the only way to handle the Islamic State was to kill its members.
Republicans normally trip over themselves to praise the military and its leaders, making Cruz’s broadside against Dempsey, who is about to retire after 41 years in uniform, all the more jarring.
3) Donald Trump Talks About Mexico’s Cunning Leaders and America’s Stupid Ones
The business mogul erupted onto the national stage — and upended the fight for the Republican nomination — when he delivered a fiery speech in June that described illegal immigrants from Mexico as “killers” and “rapists.” In the aftermath of the speech, an array of businesses ranging from NBC to Macy’s cut their ties with Trump, while politicians from both parties labeled them as insensitive or outright racist.
None of that stopped Trump from going even further Thursday night, when he used a question about the comments to take credit for having made immigration a central issue in the campaign and talk about the way he wants to secure the border.
“We need to build a wall, and it has to be built quickly,” he said. “And I don’t mind having a big beautiful door in that wall so that people can come into this country legally. But we need … to build a wall, we need to keep illegals out.”
Pressed by Wallace for specific evidence the Mexican government was sending criminals into the United States, Trump ignored the question and went on the offensive.
“The Mexican government is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning. And they send the bad ones over because they don’t want to pay for them. They don’t want to take care of them,” Trump said. “Why should they when the stupid leaders of the United States will do it for them? And that’s what is happening whether you like it or not.”
4) Ted Cruz’s Extraordinary Embrace of Egypt’s New Strongman
Whether or not one agrees with the Obama administration’s lackluster and underwhelming campaign against the Islamic State, Cruz’s answer on how to stop the militant extremists was nothing short of a “wow” statement in the debate. Deriding Obama as “essentially, an apologist” for radical Islam, Cruz compared Obama to Egypt’s autocratic ruler, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and made clear which one he preferred.
“We need a president that shows the courage that Egypt’s President al-Sisi, a Muslim, [showed] when he called out the radical Islamic terrorists who are threatening the world,” Cruz said.
Never mind that more than 1,000 Egyptians who oppose Sisi’s government have been killed in protests under his rule or that hundreds at a time have been sentenced to death in sham trials. Remember, too, it was Sisi who overthrew Egypt’s first democratically elected president in a July 2013 coup, and it’s not the Islamic State that he is most focused on targeting — it’s his political opposition in the Muslim Brotherhood.
5) Chris Christie and Rand Paul Have a Verbal Fistfight Over the NSA
The most heated moment of the debate came after a question about the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records, which triggered a shouting match between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky over their opposing positions in the long-running national debate over how to balance privacy rights with security.
“I want to collect more records from terrorists but less records from innocent Americans,” said Paul, a libertarian who has made a name for himself by breaking with traditional Republican orthodoxy over the NSA’s electronic surveillance powers.
That’s a “completely ridiculous answer,” Christie shot back. “How are you supposed to know?”
Paul rolled his eyes as Christie spoke, and said the New Jersey governor didn’t understand the Constitution. “Get a warrant! Get a judge to sign the warrant!” he yelled.
While Paul said counterterrorism efforts should not come at the expense of American civil liberties, Christie recited his experience as a federal prosecutor after the 9/11 attacks and argued the government needed more tools, not fewer, to track down terrorist suspects.
“When you’re sitting in a subcommittee just blowing hot air about this, you can say things like this,” Christie told Paul.
Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images