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GOP Contenders Go Heavy on Insults, Light on Details

The Republican Party's top presidential candidates debated on TV for three hours without saying much.

CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 06:  Republican presidential candidates (L-R) Ben Carson, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Donald Trump participate in the first prime-time presidential debate hosted by FOX News and Facebook at the Quicken Loans Arena August 6, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. The top-ten GOP candidates were selected to participate in the debate based on their rank in an average of the five most recent national political polls.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 06: Republican presidential candidates (L-R) Ben Carson, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Donald Trump participate in the first prime-time presidential debate hosted by FOX News and Facebook at the Quicken Loans Arena August 6, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. The top-ten GOP candidates were selected to participate in the debate based on their rank in an average of the five most recent national political polls. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

At the outset of Wednesday’s Republican debate, CNN moderator Jake Tapper asked GOP frontrunner Donald Trump a straightforward question: What would he do to counter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military support to the Syrian government? The boisterous real estate tycoon responded quickly, but without saying very much: “I would talk to him. I would get along with him.”

Even a geopolitical novice could appreciate that Trump's response lacked substance, but the answer set the tone for a night that was long on personal attacks and macho posturing but short on specifics about what the 11 GOP candidates would actually be willing to do to fight the Islamic State, end Syria's grinding civil war, and counter Putin as the Russian strongman cements his control over swaths of Ukraine and menaces other parts of Eastern Europe.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said President Barack Obama had placed too many restrictions on the 3,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq to help train Iraqi and Kurdish forces to battle the Islamic State -- the Americans themselves are barred from taking part in combat -- but said he wouldn’t send anymore. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina offered a detailed rundown of her plans to buy hundreds of new Navy ships and Air Force warplanes and promised to cut diplomatic ties with Putin, but she was careful not to say she’d escalate tensions with Putin or threaten any form of military confrontation with him.

At the outset of Wednesday’s Republican debate, CNN moderator Jake Tapper asked GOP frontrunner Donald Trump a straightforward question: What would he do to counter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military support to the Syrian government? The boisterous real estate tycoon responded quickly, but without saying very much: “I would talk to him. I would get along with him.”

Even a geopolitical novice could appreciate that Trump’s response lacked substance, but the answer set the tone for a night that was long on personal attacks and macho posturing but short on specifics about what the 11 GOP candidates would actually be willing to do to fight the Islamic State, end Syria’s grinding civil war, and counter Putin as the Russian strongman cements his control over swaths of Ukraine and menaces other parts of Eastern Europe.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said President Barack Obama had placed too many restrictions on the 3,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq to help train Iraqi and Kurdish forces to battle the Islamic State — the Americans themselves are barred from taking part in combat — but said he wouldn’t send anymore. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina offered a detailed rundown of her plans to buy hundreds of new Navy ships and Air Force warplanes and promised to cut diplomatic ties with Putin, but she was careful not to say she’d escalate tensions with Putin or threaten any form of military confrontation with him.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, meanwhile, said the U.S. “should use offensive tactics” against China in cyberspace to deter Beijing from continuing to hack American government, military, and corporate networks. It was a provocative comment about the possible shape of a future U.S. conflict with China, but Bush didn’t elaborate, Tapper didn’t press, and no other Republican seemed interested in discussing the issue.

The debate also brought into sharp relief one of the thorniest questions facing the GOP candidates, particularly Jeb Bush: what to say about former President George W. Bush, who remains deeply unpopular among voters from both parties and whose decision to invade Iraq has been derided by his fellow Republicans for years.

Since launching his campaign earlier this year, Jeb Bush has struggled to articulate a consistent answer about whether invading Iraq was a mistake, and he has raised eyebrows by stocking his campaign policy teams with veterans of the George W. Bush White House and telling reporters that he sought his brother’s counsel on foreign policy issues.

Wednesday night, Jeb Bush acknowledged that most of his foreign policy advisers had all served in either the administration of his brother or of his father. But during a testy exchange with Trump, Bush went a step further, and argued that his brother had kept the nation safe in the years after 9/11.

“Your brother’s administration gave us Barack Obama, because it was such a disaster, those last three months, that Abraham Lincoln couldn’t have been elected,” Trump said.

“As it relates to my brother, there’s one thing I know for sure,” Bush said, to loud applause. “He kept us safe.”

Several of Bush’s rivals made similar arguments that contrasted with Obama, who they mocked as a weak and feckless leader, with George W. Bush, who they praised for being a strong one. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said the Mideast’s instability was the fault of Obama, not Bush, while New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said the country needed a “strong American leader who will take the steps that are necessary to protect our nation.”

In case there was any doubt as to which such leader had in mind, Christie was quick to make it clear: “That’s what President George W. Bush did in 2001.”

It’s an argument that may play well in an auditorium of Republican die-hards, but Democrats are sure to be enthusiastic about being able to link the current crop of GOP candidates to George W. Bush — and about being able to use their own words to do so.

Still, it wasn’t the only brand of GOP foreign policy on display on Wednesday.

In a direct challenge to the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul criticized the outcome of recent American military interventions in Iraq and Libya and warned that overthrowing the Assad regime in Damascus could produce similar results.

“Every time we have toppled a secular dictator, we have gotten chaos, the rise of radical Islam, and we’re more at risk,” he said. “Sometimes both sides of the civil war are evil, and sometimes intervention sometimes makes us less safe.”

Paul’s reticence to intervene in Syria stood in stark contrast to some of his opponents in the GOP field, who promised to do more militarily to combat Assad’s forces and eradicate the Islamic State.

Trump, who largely sat out the policy-heavy portions of the debate, said the Obama administration’s military response in Syria had been far too weak. “If he had gone in with tremendous force, you wouldn’t have millions of people displaced all over the world,” Trump said. Florida Senator Marco Rubio attributed the problems in Iraq and Syria to U.S. “disengagement” in the region, and Ohio Governor John Kasich boasted that he “called for boots on the ground many months ago.”

In one of the more detailed proposals, Fiorina ticked off a number of ways she’d upgrade the U.S. military, including “rebuilding the Sixth Fleet,” sending more American troops to Germany, expanding U.S. missile defense systems in Europe, and conducting more military exercises in the Baltic states.

Paul pushed back against that type of hawkish rhetoric, saying Republicans need to rethink the way they conduct foreign policy more broadly. “I think we need to think before we act, and know most interventions, if not a lot of them in the Middle East, have actually backfired on us,” he said, distancing himself from his fellow candidates.

“Senator Paul has always been wary of American intervention,” said Alex Ward of the Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington. “He seems to believe in Colin Powell’s rule: you break it, you own it.”

Absent specific policy proposals, the other Republican candidates emphasized the diverse array of geopolitical threats facing the United States to justify a more muscular military posture. Rubio singled out Putin as an enemy who wanted to reposition Moscow as a geopolitical force and “destroy NATO.”

Texas Senator Ted Cruz posited that a nuclear Iran presents “the single biggest national security threat facing America right now,” despite intelligence assessments that Tehran does not currently possess a nuclear weapon nor has the capacity to deliver one to the U.S. with a conventional weapon.

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, meanwhile, said Iran represented a threat to “the very essence of Western civilization.”

“To give them this agreement, that the president treats like the Magna Carta, but Iranians treat it like it’s toilet paper, and we must, simply, make it very clear that the next president, one of us on this stage, will absolutely not honor that agreement, and will destroy it and will be tough with Iran, because otherwise, we put every person in this world in a very dangerous place,” Huckabee added, colorfully.

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