Not Much of a Debate

When it came to foreign policy last night, the GOP contenders showed they still have a lot to learn.

GettyImages-488696300bushtrumpcrop
GettyImages-488696300bushtrumpcrop

There is one thing every Republican candidate for president agrees on: The foreign policy of Barack Obama has been deeply damaging to our country. Each excels at describing the devastation while clamoring for the leader who can “make our country great again.” What has been in short supply, however, including in the ostensible foreign-policy debate Wednesday night, has been credible alternatives that have much prospect of becoming national policy. What I have not yet heard from any candidate is an effective strategy that marries priorities, spending, and action and that fits into his or her larger program for running the country.

Since I helped write some of the questions the CNN moderator threw at the candidates, I think I’m in some position to judge how they handled themselves. Jeb Bush came closest to providing real answers, exemplifying the steadiness he argued is needed; his judiciousness nearly caught up with his awkwardness this time. Marco Rubio demonstrated the broadest knowledge of world affairs and was incisive in description, but vague in prescription. Carly Fiorina had impressive command of the brief and conveyed an admirable Thatcherian toughness, but her policy prescriptions would be unlikely to produce the intended results. John Kasich argued for multilateralism, a novelty. Donald Trump was expansive on what he would accomplish but provided no basis for plausibility: When challenged on knowing so little, he proudly claimed that by the time he became president he would know more than anyone.

But make no mistake: This was not a foreign-policy debate. There was very little actual debate among the candidates; issues hugely important to U.S. national security were never touched on; and no one was challenged to put his or her responses in the context of their other governing priorities. Mostly, what CNN seemed to want was to bait candidates into personal attacks.

There is one thing every Republican candidate for president agrees on: The foreign policy of Barack Obama has been deeply damaging to our country. Each excels at describing the devastation while clamoring for the leader who can “make our country great again.” What has been in short supply, however, including in the ostensible foreign-policy debate Wednesday night, has been credible alternatives that have much prospect of becoming national policy. What I have not yet heard from any candidate is an effective strategy that marries priorities, spending, and action and that fits into his or her larger program for running the country.

Since I helped write some of the questions the CNN moderator threw at the candidates, I think I’m in some position to judge how they handled themselves. Jeb Bush came closest to providing real answers, exemplifying the steadiness he argued is needed; his judiciousness nearly caught up with his awkwardness this time. Marco Rubio demonstrated the broadest knowledge of world affairs and was incisive in description, but vague in prescription. Carly Fiorina had impressive command of the brief and conveyed an admirable Thatcherian toughness, but her policy prescriptions would be unlikely to produce the intended results. John Kasich argued for multilateralism, a novelty. Donald Trump was expansive on what he would accomplish but provided no basis for plausibility: When challenged on knowing so little, he proudly claimed that by the time he became president he would know more than anyone.

But make no mistake: This was not a foreign-policy debate. There was very little actual debate among the candidates; issues hugely important to U.S. national security were never touched on; and no one was challenged to put his or her responses in the context of their other governing priorities. Mostly, what CNN seemed to want was to bait candidates into personal attacks.

The country’s $18.2 trillion debt was mentioned only in passing. The term “human rights” was uttered just twice, by Rubio and Kasich in their closing statements. Syria’s refugee crisis was not discussed, nor was trade policy or the war we are (still) fighting in Afghanistan. The word “Europe” was mentioned only three times. And when Mexico was, it was only in the context of immigration.

Some of the other questions not asked include:

  • What are the major threats to our country?
  • How would you rank these problems: Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, Mexican drug cartels operating on the border, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Islamic State, our national debt?
  • Is our military adequate to manage those threats?
  • Do we spend enough on our nonmilitary capabilities — diplomacy, intelligence, aid, support to multilateral institutions?
  • With a defense budget as large as the next seven countries — most of which are America’s allies — do we spend enough on defense?
  • If not, how much should we spend on defense?
  • Would you raise taxes or add to the national debt to pay for that military?
  • Is America overextended by its international obligations? If so, where should we cut back?
  • Is political Islam antithetical to American interests? If so, what should be done to assist the moderating forces?
  • What are the positive national security opportunities we’re failing to take on?
  • How is the Fed’s fiscal policy affecting the global economy?

Answering a messily worded question about both Russia and Syria, Trump claimed he could “get along with [Vladimir] Putin” and then came suspiciously close to suggesting we give Russia free rein in Syria and Ukraine in order to get stability. Fiorina advocated a provocative course: refusing talks with Putin, building up the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet, conducting “aggressive military exercises in the Baltic states,” stationing more U.S. troops in Germany, giving intelligence support to Egypt, selling bombs to Jordan, and arming the Kurds. Rubio brilliantly described Russia’s malevolent influence, but didn’t say what should be done about it. And Rand Paul called for more engagement with Russia.

Magical thinking prevailed in discussing Iran: Ted Cruz was stridently unilateralist, Kasich was unrealistic about getting allies to reimpose sanctions, and Trump seemed to suggest that the Iran nuclear agreement was to blame for North Korea’s behavior. Bush pointed out that tearing up the Iran agreement isn’t a strategy, but didn’t provide one of his own. Fiorina said that unless Iran opens every military site, we should unilaterally prevent it from using the international banking system. Bush, Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and Fiorina all bemoaned the effect of the agreement on Israel but made no mention of America’s other allies.

You would not know from listening to this debate that America actually has the strongest military in the world — or that it accounts for half the world’s total military expenditures, more than the next seven countries combined. Huckabee said we need to stop the world from bullying us. Rubio twice appealed to stop “eviscerating our military.” Bush and Huckabee both called for rebuilding the U.S. intelligence community. Fiorina went all the way to force structure: 50 Army brigades, 36 Marine battalions, 300 to 350 Navy ships, and upgrading every leg of the nuclear triad. Ben Carson also argued that the Navy is too small. Oh, and that howling sound you hear is Marines repudiating Carson’s assertion that they are not ready to be deployed.

Relitigating the Iraq War was a popular subject, and both Trump and Carson staked out a position in opposition (rather overlooking Paul’s long lone voice in the GOP wilderness). Bush, Rubio, and Chris Christie argued that the Obama administration’s pulling back from Iraq left a haven for the Islamic State to develop. Carson made a mystifying reference to energy independence that would force the Arabs to do America’s bidding. Bush was hit for his brother’s choices and his selection of some prominent advisors from his brother’s administration, and he sounded very country club in explaining that because the last two Republican presidents were his father and brother, “by definition” many former administration types would be among his advisors. But Bush’s best moment came in defending a Trump attack on his brother’s presidency for having kept Americans safe; Christie also supported George W. Bush’s approach to intervening before the crime happens.

On Syria, Trump argued that Obama “doesn’t have courage,” but basically advocated the same policy of “let them fight each other.” Scott Walker argued that the current 3,000 U.S. troops fighting the Islamic State would be sufficient if only the restrictions on their ability to operate were lifted; then he gave a plausible commander-in-chief audition by speaking directly to troops, saying he would send them into harm’s way only when U.S. national security is at risk, and with his full support and a clear path to victory. Rubio gave a brilliant defense of his vote against the authorization to use military force against the Islamic State because the president didn’t have a strategy to win. Paul made a solid case for his opposition to intervention and hit a glancing blow with “there will always be a Bush or Clinton for you if you want to go back to war.” Cruz also opposed intervening, arguing that if we’d bombed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Islamic State would have chemical weapons now. Kasich seemed to think it was possible to have a “take care of business and … come home” military intervention without messy nation-building, while also winning the battle of ideas. In the end, no one presented a better alternative than the president’s policy (though Bush referenced his Iraq policy speech, which is better).

China was touched on only lightly. Walker was called on to defend his earlier advocacy of canceling President Xi Jinping’s state visit over Chinese cyberattacks. Bush argued for continued diplomatic engagement but more aggressive American use of offensive cyberattacks and other tools against China. Total time elapsed: around 4 minutes. In a three-hour debate.

But the best line of the night came from struggling Chris Christie, after CNN had goaded Fiorina and Trump into fighting about their respective business records. “You’re both successful people. Congratulations. You know who’s not successful? The middle class.”

He’s right: Average Americans would have heard little addressed regarding their problems in last night’s debate.

Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Corrections, Sept. 17, 2015: The $18.2 trillion U.S. national debt was mentioned in passing by several candidates; an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that only Donald Trump mentioned it and stated that the debt was $19 trillion. The term “human rights” was uttered twice during the debate, by Marco Rubio and John Kasich; an earlier version of this article mistakenly said just Kasich used the term. The word “Europe” was mentioned three times; an earlier version of this article mistakenly said it wasn’t mentioned.

Kori Schake is the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former U.S. government official in foreign and security policy, and the author of America vs the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved? Twitter: @KoriSchake

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