And other thoughts on the inanities of national security in the Republican debate from New Hampshire.
- By Kori SchakeKori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution.
I won’t sugarcoat it: There was a lot of nonsense talked on national security issues in Saturday’s Republican debate, the final sparring match before Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary. That’s especially worrisome since Republicans seem to believe national security will loom large in the election. Major issues went unmentioned, most importantly the war in Afghanistan. But the debate did scrutinize candidates’ positions, and revealed important distinctions. I agree with the general consensus that the three governors salvaged their prospects, Sen. Marco Rubio hurt himself with clay-footed responses to Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Ted Cruz proved himself a fine litigator but a bumbling politician, and Donald Trump seems to be losing altitude (inshallah).
Commander-in-chief suitability was the opening salvo, Trump making a surprisingly good defense of himself not being the one with a quick trigger, and Cruz looking weaselly in his unwillingness to repeat his allegation that the Donald would be liable to nuke Denmark. Christie floored Rubio with the strongest argument a governor could make against a one-term senator: “you have not been involved in a consequential decision where you have been held accountable.” Strangely, Rubio played right into it; one of his odder counters was that if experience matters, vote for Joe Biden. When Rubio pointed to his Hezbollah sanctions bill as a concrete accomplishment, Christie made the rubble bounce pointing out that Rubio hadn’t even been present to vote for it. On the whole, Rubio sounded shrill most of the night. He is at his best when aspirational, but that plays into the critique of Washington speechifying rather than getting things done.
Compromise was debated in several exchanges. Gov. John Kasich returned to the theme repeatedly in making his case. Former Gov. Jeb Bush capitalized on Christie’s wrecking ball to position himself as someone who can “forge consensus so we can move the nation forward.” Rubio’s best moment was defending abandonment of his immigration legislation. He admitted he couldn’t garner support, explained it was because “the American people have zero trust that the federal government will enforce our laws,” and outlined the position basically every Republican candidate has taken: secure the border, enforce the law, and put an entry/exit system in place. Challenged by Christie that he hadn’t fought for what he believed in, Rubio sensibly countered that leadership is about solving problems, not refusing to compromise
North Korea’s rocket launch gave moderators a timely tie-in with one of the most vexing international dangers. Cruz offered a solid mix of missile defenses, grid hardening against electromagnetic pulse attacks, support to South Korea, and sanctions; but dissembled when pressed about whether he would authorize a pre-emptive strike. Kasich focused on the general problem of nuclear material proliferation in a jumbled answer. Bush sounded judicious critiquing President Barack Obama’s leadership, advocating bank sanctions (which previously brought North Korea to heel), and concluding “if a pre-emptive strike is necessary to keep us safe, then we should do it.” Trump curiously suggested that since a Chinese bank is a tenant in one of his buildings, he could force Beijing to solve the North Korea problem. Rubio tried to build on Bush’s answer about the world being safer when America is a reliable ally, but it came off sounding like a special plea for Israel.
Christie keyed off a reference to hostages in the North Korea question to make a prosecutor’s case for not paying ransoms, which served to give Trump his best moment of the night. Talking empathetically about murdered Islamic State hostage James Foley’s family, Trump nonetheless opposed paying ransom, saying it puts a bounty on all Americans. It was the same argument as Christie, Cruz, and others, but made much more deftly. It will probably not be remembered, though, over Trump’s intemperate dismissal of the crowd booing him (“they’re all paid donors…. I don’t want their money.”)
None of the candidates had strategies for defeating the Islamic State that differed substantially from the Obama approach they criticized. Bush connected the specific question to general failure of the administration’s foreign policy — criticizing bombing Libya without a plan for what to do after, the futility of incrementally adding troops in Iraq and Syria, the need to rebuilt trust, and arguing America needs to “lead in a much more aggressive way than we’re doing right now.” Given the opportunity to walk back his preposterous support for carpet bombing, Cruz ridiculously argued that carpet bombing need not be indiscriminate, enthusing about overwhelming airpower winning wars to such an extent that Billy Mitchell himself would have blushed. Rubio, pressed on the disparity between his description of the Islamic State as a gargantuan danger and the limited U.S. force he advocates, gave a solid answer about the importance of Sunni forces being the mainstay of any ground campaign. Unfortunately, Rubio was not pressed about how to produce those forces, which President Obama has been advocating for years.
Overall, the candidates have moderated their characterizations of Islam. Christie was stalwart in describing Muslim Americans as normal Americans, their good relations with the government essential to identifying threats in our midst. Rubio rather disappointingly pivoted to discrimination against Christians in America.
The low point (of many low points) of the night was a question on torture. Cruz narrowly and Trump enthusiastically (“I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse….”) supported waterboarding. Rubio argued we shouldn’t ever discuss tactics. Bush alone among the candidates opposed, saying “where we stand is the appropriate place,” arguing for improving our intelligence by other means, and smartly put Guantanamo into play criticizing Obama for killing people rather than capturing them.
Moderator Martha Raddatz (who should know better) asked about women and the draft in a way that suggested it is appropriate to blanch at our daughters but be proud of our sons serving their country. It also seemed designed to elicit conservative discomfort with opening all military career fields to women. Surprisingly, for a party that mostly gets wrong how to talk to women, both Bush and Christie gave solid answers along the lines that if all opportunities are open to women in the military, all obligations should be, too. Both hewed to the line that standards rather than gender should be the basis of qualification, although Bush twice stressed the importance of military morale in his answer, which many opponents of women serving in the infantry will hear as sympathy for their position.
Both missed the opportunity, though, to explain the value of military service for personal development and in contributing to something larger than yourself. It seemed to me unfair that Raddatz quickly pivoted to asserting that Bush favored reinstating conscription and then intruded on him trying to clarify the difference between selective service registration and actually drafting people. But, whatever: On rebuilding the military, there seemed to be little difference among the candidates — more money.
Bush is the candidate least prone to try and look tough, most eloquent on the frustrations veterans have, and most detailed in plans to address the problems of the Department of Veterans Affairs. But Kasich was terrific as well, enthusiastically touting Ohio’s admirable record in reducing licensing and other regulatory impediments to veterans’ employment, explaining veterans’ strengths as employees, and passionately arguing there should be zero veteran unemployment. “Let’s lift them; they’re the greatest people!” It was Kasich at his best: upbeat, policy-centric, standing on his record.
Veterans’ strength and their continuing contribution to society after military service is an issue too little discussed by leading politicians. Liberals too often talk of veterans as victims, as though all suffered from their service. That is condescending and untrue to the experience of most veterans. It also distances veterans from us, and losing a shared perspective between veterans and the broader society is a real concern with a volunteer military. Everyone who spoke last night took the veteran’s perspective, in contrast to the democratic candidates, who in their recent debate sounded the klaxon to protect the VA and its government workers. I hope that distinction becomes salient in the general election.
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