The 2015 US military budget was a little more than $600 billion, but most of the six contenders at tonight's Republican presidential debate in Charleston, SC seemed intent on tripping over each other to declare the armed forces "gutted" and offer throaty claims about how they'd project American strength through massive spending and aggressive force.
None offered any concrete details like how far they'd be willing to go in terms of "boots on the ground" or what the appropriate military response to Iran's seizure and brief detention of the 10 Navy sailors whose two ships had entered Iranian territorial waters would be. But rest assured, in any of the Republican hopefuls' administrations, there will be guaranteed "strength."
With one brief preamble and question, Fox Business Network host and debate moderator Maria Bartiromo put the ball on a tee for each of the candidates to demonstrate just how tough each of their foreign policies would be:
Sometimes it seems the world is on fire. Where and when should a president use military action to restore order?
Though each of the candidates had their moment to opine on slight variations of questions which all hinged on the premise that America is in mortal danger, the "world on fire" question was directed at New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who replied:
Here's my warning to everybody out in the audience tonight. If you're worried about the world being on fire, you're worried about how we're going to use our military, you're worried about strengthening our military and you're worried most of all about keeping your homes and your families safe and secure, you cannot give Hillary Clinton a third term of Barack Obama's leadership.
I will not do that. If I'm the nominee, she won't get within 10 miles of the White House.
Christie added, "We need to rebuild our military, and this president has let it diminish to a point where tinpot dictators like the mullahs in Iran are taking our Navy ships."
Texas Senator Ted Cruz boasted of his vote for an amendment that would increase military spending to almost $700 billion, and declared, "If I am elected president, no service man or service woman will be forced to be on their knees, and any nation that captures our fighting men will feel the full force and fury of the United States of America."
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, never one for over-the-top bluster, kept his tone calm but made sure his words were sufficiently dire:
We're gutting our military, and so the Iranians and the Chinese and the Russians and many other countries look at the United States not as serious as we once were. We have to eliminate the sequester, rebuild our military in a way that makes it clear that we're back in the game.
We will rebuild the military to make sure that it is a solid force, not to be the world's policeman, but to make sure that in a peaceful world, people know that the United States is there to take care of our own national interests and take care of our allies.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio promised to end Obamacare and "rebuild" the military, adding that President Obama is "more interested in funding Planned Parenthood than he is in funding the military." Without offering much in the way of details, Rubio laid out his plan to defeat ISIS:
When I'm president of the United States, we are going to win this war on ISIS. The most powerful intelligence agency in the world is going to tell us where we are, the most powerful military in the world is going to destroy them. And if we capture any of them alive, they are getting a one-way ticket to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and we are going to find out everything they know.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson conceded that "We have the world's best military, even though [President Obama] has done everything he can to diminish it." Carson's "simple" proposal of what he would do as president to defeat ISIS:
I think we need to do a lot more than we're doing. Recognize that the caliphate is what gives them the legitimacy to go out on a jihadist mission, so we need to take that away from them.
The way to take that away from them is to talk to our military officials and ask them, "what do you need in order to accomplish this goal?"
Our decision is, then, do we give them what we need. I say, yes, not only do we give them what they need, but we don't tie their hands behind their backs so that they can go ahead and get the job done.
In addition to that, we go ahead and we take the oil from them, their source of revenue. You know, some of these—these engagement rules that the administration has—"we're not going to bomb a tanker that's coming out of there because there might be a person in it"—give me a break.
Just tell them that, you put people in there, we're going to bomb them. So don't put people in there if you don't want them bombed. You know, that's so simple.
"Taking the oil" has been an ISIS-destroying strategy frequently employed (though never explained in practical terms) by Donald Trump over the course of the campaign. Strangely, rather than asking Trump a direct question about the use of military force, moderator Neil Cavuto pivoted to the issue of Syrian refugees as his national security question for the former host of The Apprentice.
That could be the great Trojan Horse. It could be people that are going to do great, great destruction. When I look at the migration, I looked at the line, I said it actually on your show recently, where are the women? It looked like very few women. Very few children. Strong, powerful men, young and people are looking at that and they're saying what's going on?
You look at the kind of damage that two people that two people that got married, they were radicalized — they got married, they killed 15 people in actually 15—going to be probably 16 but you look at that and you take a look—a good strong look and that's what we have. We are nineteen trillion dollars—our country's a mess and we can't let all these people come into our country and break our borders. We can't do it.
Finally, Ohio Governor John Kasich took the Fonzie approach to Republican foreign policy:
So look, in foreign policy—in foreign policy, it's strength, but you've got to be cool. You've got to have a clear vision of where you want to go. And I'm going to tell you, that it—I'm going to suggest to you here tonight, that you can't do on the job training.
I've seen so much of it—a Soviet Union, the coming down of a wall, the issues that we saw around the world in Central America, the potential spread of communism, and 9/11 and Gulf War. You see what the Saudi's—deliver them a strong message but at the end of the day we have to keep our cool because most of the time they're going right with us. And they must be part of our coalition to destroy ISIS and I believe we can get that done.
All in all, it was a display of fear, anger, and despair. Worse from a Republican strategic standpoint, it was a missed opportunity for the party to differentiate its policies from those that led to the Obama administration's disastrous military interventions of the past seven years.
This is where Kentucky Senator Rand Paul was truly missed on the stage tonight, for he would have likely reminded his rivals that international incidents such as the attack on the embassy in Benghazi would have never happened had then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton not pushed for US (and NATO)-led efforts to depose Muammar Gaddafi. Libya was briefly one of Obama and Clinton's proudest foreign policy moments, with the former Secretary once bragging "We came, we saw, he died!" Now Libya is yet another country where ISIS has established a foothold, and the power vacuum has led to the North African nation becoming (in Eli Lake's colorful phrasing) "scumbag Woodstock."
Last month, Nick Gillespie spoke with American University professor Scott Adams about why "U.S. foreign policy always come down to the question of when and where to deploy the military." Watch below.