US Republican candidates debate Middle East
Washington - In the first debates of the 2016 US elections, the 17 candidates for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, who were separated into two tiers, barely mentioned foreign policy. The few times they did, the focus was almost entirely on the Middle East and more specifically on the Islamic State (ISIS) and Iran.
None of candidates are known as foreign policy experts, so when they spoke on foreign policy issues in the August 6th event, it appeared they were simply trying to outdo businessman Donald Trump, who has taken centre stage with his sensational statements. In fact, Trump is leading the other Republican candidates in early polling.
But allowing Trump to set the tone lowered the bar of seriousness a few notches. For example, all the candidates eagerly agreed with Trump that “America is losing to China and Mexico and everywhere”. To great applause, Trump blamed US President Barack Obama, who, he said, “does not have a clue”.
Any Republican discussion of Obama’s foreign policy invariably includes the phrase “leading from behind” and Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was the first to invoke it. All of the candidates described an America that is weak and disengaged from the world because of Obama’s policies.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker praised the US-Egyptian relationship and said the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates told him that the biggest threat to the region is “the disengagement of America”. The answer, Walker said, was to “put steel in our foreign policy”.
The only woman Republican candidate, Carly Fiorina, former chief executive officer of Hewlett Packard, said in the second-tier debate: “When America doesn’t engage, the world becomes a dangerous place.”
The candidates called for defeating ISIS but their approaches were varied and sometimes confusing.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush blamed Obama for the creation of ISIS, saying, “Obama abandoned Iraq and ISIS was created because of the void when we left”. He was referring to the US military withdrawal ordered by Obama, who inherited the Iraq situation from Bush’s brother, former president George W. Bush.
Cruz said the US commander-in-chief should be as tough as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al- Sisi, whom he praised for fighting extremism. The United States needs a president, Cruz said, who makes clear that “if you wage jihad on America, then you are signing your death warrant”.
Cruz said he would revoke the citizenship of any Americans fighting for ISIS. He also ridiculed US Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for saying there is no military solution for defeating ISIS. “That is nonsense,” Cruz said.
Both Cruz and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal criticised Obama for refusing to use the expression “Islamic terrorism”. Jindal went so far as to say “we are losing the war on terror because President Obama refuses to call our enemy ‘radical Islamic terrorism’”.
Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., argued that it will take boots on the ground to defeat ISIS. “This air campaign will not destroy ISIS,” he said. “We need a ground force in Iraq and Syria and America has to be part of that ground force.”
Israel did not figure prominently in the debate with the exception of an exchange between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky., who wants to cut all foreign aid, even Israel’s. Christie countered that Israel is a “priority we have to help and keep safe after eight years of the Obama administration”. Cruz pledged to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and Fiorina referred to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as “my good friend”.
After ISIS, Iran received the most attention. Many of the candidates vowed to revoke the Iran nuclear agreement on their first day in office. Fiorina said she would confer with Israel and call a summit with “our Arab allies” to send a message that “America is back in the leadership business”.
Trump claimed the deal with Iran would lead to “destruction around the world”. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee said the deal gives Iran “everything they want”. Paul, who generally advocates an isolationist foreign policy, nevertheless, said, “Obama gave too much too quickly. I wouldn’t release sanctions before there is compliance.”
For Cruz, it is not just Iran’s destabilising behaviour and the threat to Americans that is of concern. He accused Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the al-Quds force, of being “directly responsible for murdering 500 American servicemen in Iraq”.
Walker proposed adding more “crippling sanctions” on Iran and “convincing our allies to do the same”.
Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon with no prior political experience, defended torture and waterboarding because “what we need to do to get our information is our business”. He added, “There is no such thing as a politically correct war”. Similarly, Huckabee said, “the purpose of the military is kill people and break things”.
The Republican candidates were combative and sensational for much of the evening in the first of what will be many debates and the podium was crowded — seven candidates were regulated to a pre-debate late afternoon session and ten participated in the prime-time programme. As the field narrows, let us hope that sensationalism and grandstanding will be replaced with substantive dialogue.