Last night's Republican debate was unusual not just because Donald Trump wasn't there, but for the first Republican debate I can remember this cycle, no one insisted that part of the problem with the U.S. prosecution of the war on terror was President Obama's refusal to use the term "radical Islam."
Nevertheless, most of the Republican candidates continued to mistake rhetoric aimed at a militaristic-minded domestic audience for actual foreign policy. While the U.S. prepares to possibly relaunch military operations in Libya (and, in fact, appears to have already started to try to do so), Libya didn't get a lot of attention at the debate.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie got a question about whether he would deploy U.S. troops to Libya because of the growing influence of the Islamic State (ISIS) there but he didn't particularly answer it, instead noting, rightly, that Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has consistently skirted any responsibility for her role in destabilizing Libya and creating the current problem. But, as I wrote earlier this week, acknowledging the inability of others to understand the responsibility their policies have for regional instability doesn't necessarily mean you understand the responsibility your own policies have.
After talking about Clinton, Christie did not return to the specific question of troops in Libya. Instead, he explained that his plan against ISIS would involve a "broader war" that involved European and Sunni Arab countries, talking the fight to ISIS "every place that it is around the world." The rhetoric is not that different from President Obama's, who insists he is working with regional allies on a "comprehensive" anti-ISIS plan. The U.S. has troops deployed from Nigeria to Iraq battling elements of ISIS and elements associated with it.
Other candidates did not do much better. Marco Rubio used a response to a response from Rand Paul about whether he should have embraced his father Ron Paul earlier in the campaign to explain that he believed the world was a "safer and a better place when America is the strongest power in the world." That was also the sum total of his ISIS strategy. If America were stronger (Rubio mentioned rebuilding intelligence capabilities, and elsewhere he and others complained about the shrinking military under Obama), Rubio insisted, it would defeat ISIS. That's obviously not a strategy, it's just wishful thinking.
Rubio also said if any ISIS leaders would be captured alive they'd be taken to Guantanamo Bay to "find out everything they know," but didn't specify what kind of interrogation techniques he might authorize that would be more effective than present ones, nor did he specify how the military would capture more ISIS leaders than it currently does if he were president.
Ted Cruz, meanwhile, was asked about his sharp rhetoric (he's mentioned wanting to find out if "sand glows" in supporting carpet bombing of ISIS) and how it squared with his history of voting for smaller defense budgets.
Naturally, Cruz avoided the substance of the question, instead insisting he would "apologize to nobody for the vigorousness with which I will fight terrorism, go after ISIS, hunt them down wherever they are, and utterly and completely destroy ISIS." Of course, nobody asked him to apologize for that.
Then he said carpet bombing was a "different, fundamental military strategy" than Barack Obama's, which has also focused largely on mass bombings in Iraq and Syria (so many bombs have been dropped the Pentagon is running out).
Amazingly, Cruz tried to compare the war on ISIS to the first Persian Gulf War, saying that carpet bombing was effective there because "saturation bombing… utterly destroyed the enemy." Yet that is, very clearly, incorrect. Given what happened in the 25 years after, even claiming the Persian Gulf War was a victory is questionable. But the U.S. certainly didn't "utterly destroy the enemy" in the Gulf War because Saddam Hussein remained in power for another decade, with the U.S. involved in on-again off-again air campaigns over Iraq throughout that time, until the 2003 invasion of Iraq finally led to Hussein's toppling.
That war wasn't a victory either. Among other things, it helped create the space for ISIS. The problem didn't start with the Persian Gulf War—the U.S. supported Hussein's Iraq in the 1979-1989 Iran-Iraq war—but ran through it. Pointing to the Gulf War for examples on how to fight ISIS is an incredible display of historical and policy ignorance.
Cruz finished by saying the U.S. needed to define the enemy (but he didn't say the enemy was radical Islam, so how would we ever know???) and "rebuild the military to defeat the enemy." Remember, the question was about Cruz supporting tighter budgets for the military in an effort to return fiscal sustainability to the federal government, and how that squared with his tough rhetoric. He didn't answer that question.
Rubio noted the only budget Cruz ever voted for was Rand Paul's, which balanced the budget by imposing fiscal discipline across the federal government, including on the military. Rubio's answer also talked about using "overwhelming force," but didn't explain how that would translate into victory. And that's actually the same intellectually bankrupt argument liberals use to justify ever-increasing government spending: that any problem can be solved with more taxpayer money. The opposite, in fact, is often true. Austerity is the best auditor, for the military and any other government program, but requires a commitment to improving results and not spending more money.
Jeb Bush gave a more comprehensive answer if still a wrong one. He scolded the senators on stage for not passing an authorization for the use of military force against ISIS, said he would arm the Kurds, "embed" U.S. troops with Iraqi ones, re-engage Sunni tribal leaders, impose a no-fly zone over Syria, and train a Sunni force in Syria to fight ISIS. He also made a comment about getting "the lawyers off the damn backs of the military once and for all," which, like Rubio's Guantanamo comment, could be another example of a weak attempt to dog whistle about torture and other practices President Obama insists the U.S. stopped doing when he came into office.
Kasich also claimed "victory" in the Persian Gulf War of 1991 (which led to years of a no-fly zone, sanctions against Iraq, and finally a full-scale invasion and an intractable eight year war out of which now ISIS has emerged) could be replicated, not just through bombings but by bringing together Arab leaders. That, too, if something the Obama administration has been trying to do. Kasich doesn't explain how his effort at coalition-building would be more effective than Obama's, but was confident enough of it to say that the U.S. could leave the area once it had led that coalition to a victory over ISIS.
Christie brought up ISIS in a question about religious liberty, saying he supported fighting ISIS because it was necessary in securing religious liberty at home. "I will take on ISIS," Christie said, "not only because it keeps us safe, but because it allows us to absolutely conduct our religious affairs the way we find in our heart and in our souls." He did not articulate the link between ISIS' attempt at launching terror attacks to the U.S. to religious liberty. One of ISIS' goals is, indeed, to impose a caliphate on territory it controls, but Christie could've explained how a mass shooting at government holiday party comes even close to accomplishing that and, therefore, what makes this bout of terrorism different from previous ones vis a vis religious, or any other kind of liberties other than the ones the government curtails in order to fight terrorism.
Perhaps the most depressing rhetoric on ISIS came from Rand Paul, when he used the threat of ISIS to not only defend the strict border policies he supports but to attack Marco Rubio for not supporting tough border policies and therefore not being serious about fighting ISIS, illustrating that even candidates who embrace ideas of freedom and show and understanding of them aren't above using scare tactics to curtail it, in this case the freedom of movement.