FP’s 6 Top Moments of the GOP Debate

Turns out that many Republican presidential candidates would be OK with Bashar al-Assad staying in power.


Tuesday night’s Republican debate in Las Vegas had plenty of moments of machismo, from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz threatening to “carpet bomb” the Islamic State, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie boasting about the cyberweapons he was prepared to unleash against China, and businessman Donald Trump standing behind his threats to kill the families of terrorists and openly mocking former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as lacking “toughness.”

But despite the tough talk, the debate was just as notable for what candidates didn’t say as for what they did. There were no calls for deploying large numbers of ground troops to Iraq and Syria to fight the Islamic State or to send more American weapons to Eastern Europe as a show of strength to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.

Instead, several candidates — including both Trump and Cruz — argued that Washington would be better off if Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad remained in power. Others questioned the federal government’s expansive surveillance powers. And when Ohio Gov. John Kasich talked about punching “the Russians in the nose,” only Christie tried to match his anti-Putin bravado (the New Jersey governor said he would shoot down a Russian plane that crossed into an American-patrolled no-fly zone in Syria).

From Trump doing Trump things to Carly Fiorina’s unknown past as a super-spy, below are the six top moments from the debate.

Keeping dictators in power

A surprising number of GOP presidential candidates said they opposed overthrowing Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. Trump, Cruz, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul argued that Assad’s ouster would leave all of Syria in the hands of the Islamic State and other extremists in the country.

Cruz argued that the revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Syria demonstrated that overthrowing dictators often results in the kind of chaos and instability that gives terrorists space to take root. Though they committed human rights abuses, Cruz said former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, former Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi, and Assad had all fundamentally helped the United States by fighting Islamic extremists.

“We need to learn from history,” Cruz said. “These same leaders — Obama, Clinton, and far too many Republicans — want to topple Assad. Assad is a bad man. Gadhafi was a bad man. Mubarak had a terrible human rights record. But they were assisting us — at least Gadhafi and Mubarak — in fighting radical Islamic terrorists.”

Ben Carson, who repeatedly cited a trip he just made to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, said the United States needed largely to try to avoid getting sucked into the Middle Eastern morass.

“We need to start thinking about the needs of the American people before we go and solve everybody else’s problems,” he said. “The fact of the matter is, is that the Middle East has been in turmoil for thousands of years. For us to think that we’re going to in there and fix that with a couple of little bombs and a few little decorations is relatively foolish.”

Trump, for his part, gave an impassioned argument against the human and financial costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that could just as easily have come from the mouth of Bernie Sanders or other progressive politicians.

“In my opinion, we’ve spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people that frankly, if they were there and if we could’ve spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges, and all of the other problems; our airports and all of the other problems we’ve had, we would’ve been a lot better off,” Trump said.

Debating surveillance

On the heels of terrorist attacks in France and California, Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio sparred over whether recent intelligence reforms have hampered the ability of the National Security Agency to detect terrorist plots, reinvigorating a debate between the libertarian and hawkish wings of the Republican Party.

Rubio attacked Cruz for voting in favor of the USA Freedom Act, which curtailed the ability of the NSA to collect telephone records known as metadata, and, according to Rubio, may have opened the door to additional terrorist attacks.

“The next time there is attack on — an attack on this country, the first thing people are going to want to know is, why didn’t we know about it and why didn’t we stop it?” Rubio said. “And the answer better not be because we didn’t have access to records or information that would have allowed us to identify these killers before they attacked.”

After Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA collected in American phone records in bulk, Congress moved to restrict that program by passing the USA Freedom Act. That law mandated that the NSA no longer hold those records, moving them into the hands of phone companies. The NSA can still search them with a court order.

Cruz, a staunch constitutionalist who has railed against U.S. surveillance efforts as contrary to American principles, argued that the reforms contained in the Freedom Act have in fact strengthened American intelligence efforts, and that the NSA can now examine more phone calls than it did under the Patriot Act. “Marco knows what he’s saying isn’t true,” Cruz said. “The old program covered 20 percent to 30 percent of phone numbers to search for terrorists. The new program covers nearly 100 percent.”

That’s a claim backed up by the U.S. intelligence community. In its announcement that the U.S. government had halted bulk metadata collection, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence saidthe overall volume of call detail records subject to query pursuant to court order is greater under USA Freedom Act.”

Shutting down the Internet

The debate ventured into unusual waters when Trump doubled down on his proposal for “closing the internet in some way,” as a method to defeat the Islamic State. When asked twice by Wolf Blitzer whether the proposal was meant seriously, Trump said he “would certainly be open to closing areas where we are at war with somebody. I sure as hell don’t want to let people that want to kill us and kill our nation use our Internet.”

The remark immediately prompted confusion from commentators and his rival candidates about how an Internet shutdown would be implemented and how it would benefit counterterrorism efforts.

“Trump says we ought to close that Internet thing,” said Paul. “The question really is, what does he mean by that? Like they do in North Korea? Like they do in China?”

Later in the debate, Trump attempted to clarify his remarks, saying, “I’m not talking about closing the Internet” in the United States, but shutting it off in “parts of Syria, parts of Iraq, where [the Islamic State] is.”

Trump under fire

Trump has begun to look more vulnerable lately — several polls show Cruz beating him in Iowa — and the billionaire real estate developer was repeatedly booed by the crowd in Las Vegas’s Venetian Resort. Perhaps smelling blood, Bush — who has faced mounting pressure to stand up to Trump — pounced.

“You’re not going to able to insult your way to the presidency,” Bush said to loud applause. “Leadership is about creating a serious strategy to deal with the threat of our time.”

“With Jeb’s strategy we will never be great again,” Trump responded.

Later, Bush mocked Trump’s complaints about the tone of the questions he was getting from the CNN moderators.

“This is a tough business,” Bush said, in a remark that seemed to infuriate the GOP frontrunner.

“You’re real tough,” Trump said, repeating his familiar insult about Bush not being energetic enough to be president. “I’m at 42, and you’re at 3,” Trump added, referring to polls showing him with a wide lead over Bush.

Rupert Murdoch, the Fox News founder who has often clashed with Trump, celebrated Bush’s criticism.

Murdoch followed up with this.

Still, Trump did make one comment that seemed to win over many in the room: a vow not to mount an independent campaign for the White House if he loses his bid to be the Republican nominee.

Carly Fiorina, secret agent

Early in Tuesday’s debate, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina said she had cooperated with the National Security Agency in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks when the NSA needed new servers, diverting equipment from her company to help in the burgeoning war on terror.

“We need the private sector’s help,” Fiorina said Tuesday night, in response to the threat from the Islamic State. “They must be asked. I will ask them. I know them.”

Turns out, this is true. In a May 2015 interview with the National Review, Robert Deitz, NSA’s general counsel at the time, confirmed this happened.

“HP made precisely the equipment we needed, and we needed in bulk,” Deitz said.

Waging cyberwar on China

In a rare moment of comity, Bush and Christie agreed that Washington should react aggressively to any future Chinese cyberattacks against the U.S. government or against American companies.

In response, Christie argued that the United States should pilfer similar records belonging to China that would expose corruption within the highest ranks of the Chinese governments and then make them public.

“Let the Chinese people start to digest how corrupt the Chinese government is,” Christie said.

Bush echoed Christie’s call for a forceful response, but remained vague on how he would fight back against Chinese hacking. “We need to create a situation where they know that there will be adverse impacts if they keep doing what they’re doing,” the former Florida governor said.

Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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