Even without Trump, the Republican field seems clueless on the basics.
Thursday night’s Trump-less debate was less blustery than the Republicans’ previous spectacles, but on foreign policy issues, the Donald’s absence didn’t make it less slight, cynical, or shruggingly uninformed.
Earlier in the week, Robert Gates—a lifelong Republican who has served as secretary of defense and CIA director—said the GOP candidates’ discussion of national security issues “would embarrass a middle schooler.” If Gates tuned in Thursday night, he would have had no cause to revise his assessment.
Sen. Marco Rubio started off by promising that, if—or, rather, when—he’s elected president, “We are going to rebuild our intelligence capabilities, and they’re going to tell us where the terrorists are.” Rubio seems unaware that President Obama has vastly boosted spending on intelligence and that the spy agencies’ No. 1 priority is to find terrorists. But Rubio went further: Under his administration, he said, “If we capture terrorists, they’re going to Guantánamo, and we will find out everything they know.” I think this means that he would bring back torture—a technique that George W. Bush ended in 2006. None of the other candidates, or the questioners, seemed to mind.
Sen. Ted Cruz doubled down on his colorful comment from an earlier debate that he would “carpet-bomb” ISIS until the desert sands glowed in the dark—suggesting that the bombs might be atomic. (Gates was addressing this remark when he lambasted his party’s candidates for “making threats and promises that are totally unrealistic, totally unattainable,” adding, “Either they really believe what they’re saying, or they’re cynical and opportunistic, and, in a way, you hope it’s the latter, because God forbid they actually believe some of the things that they’re saying.”)
Cruz also said—obligatory in these settings—that Obama has “dramatically degraded our military,” noting that since the 1990 Gulf War, the number of U.S. planes and ships has diminished by half. Assuming those figures are true, he ignores that the combat power of those planes and ships has dramatically grown. Would Cruz prefer trading today’s military for the one of 25 years ago? That’s the right question, if he’s going to raise the issue. Any general or admiral would choose today’s.
Rubio went further, saying we now have the smallest Army since World War II, the smallest Navy in 100 years, and the smallest Air Force in history. Again, I don’t think any general or admiral would make the trade. The number of ships, planes, and soldiers is not all that counts.
Gov. Chris Christie charged that the National Security Agency reform bill “made the country less safe,” apparently not recognizing that its effect—to remove metadata files from the agency’s headquarters and store them with the phone companies (and allowing the agency to retrieve them with a court order)—was, in fact, suggested by Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA director at the time. Alexander assured the members of Obama’s reform commission, as well as many lawmakers on Capitol Hill, that the measure would have negligible effect on counterterrorism.
Jeb Bush said, “We need to arm the Kurds, embed troops with Iraqi soldiers, support Sunni tribes,” and help a “Sunni-led force to take out ISIS.” He seemed unaware that President Obama is doing all of those things, though admittedly, the final and crucial piece—organizing a Sunni-led force—is slow going because some of the Sunni nations fear and loathe one another more than they fear and loathe ISIS. How would any of these candidates better deal with that problem when they apparently don’t know it exists?
Rubio, Bush, and Cruz all said they’d loosen the rules of engagement that supposedly constrain U.S. forces fighting and bombing ISIS. But they didn’t specify how they would do this (except for Cruz with his call for carpet-bombing) or what effect the loosening might have.