Republican candidates debate regime change in Las Vegas

by Russell's Rants

Originally published December 16, 2015


Personal insults continued to fly at tonight’s Republican presidential debate between the candidates – not surprisingly with Donald Trump in the vortex of most of them. But there was also a substantive fault line on foreign policy between those that favored (and defended) a George W. Bush-style policy of regime change in the Middle East versus those who did not. We already knew that the former president’s brother, Jeb!, still stands by the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Tonight’s debate, however, saw Marco Rubio and John Kasich make forceful, if not convincing, arguments in favor of extending that foreign policy to Syria in ousting Bashar Assad and putting thousands of American boots on the ground to rout ISIS.

Rand Paul reclaimed the libertarian mantel of his father, Ron Paul, in making the strongest ideological case against “chaos through regime change.” His argument was that the American regime-change policies under both Bush and Obama in Iraq, Libya, unsuccessfully in Egypt and haltingly in Syria has created the vacuum in which the Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood thrive. He described himself as a foreign policy “realist” – as opposed to the “utopian” neo-conservatives represented by Bush, Rubio and Kasich.

Trump was a fellow traveler with Rand Paul on non-intervention, saying that the $3, $4 or $5 billion (he couldn’t decide which) we spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were “wasted” and could have been better spent at home on roads and bridges. That was too much for Carly Fiorina, who said Trump sounded like Obama – which is only because she’s incapable of thinking outside the box, which love him or hate him, is Trump’s specialty with his toxic blend of economic populism, ethnic xenophobia and nationalism.

Ted Cruz, as he has on immigration policy, straddled the stage. He did not want to associate himself with the Rand/Ron Paul libertarian, non-interventionist position, (too isolationist), but he also didn’t want to fall into the neocon idealist camp of Rubio, who will likely be his biggest competitor for the nomination when and if Trump falters. So Cruz took the hawkish interventionist position of “America First”: Middle East dictators were okay; don’t topple Assad; but carpet-bomb ISIS. When asked at the top of the debate whether he was advocating the mass indiscriminate slaughter of the “hundreds of thousands of civilians” by “leveling the ISIS capital of Raqqa,” Cruz stepped back from the precipice. He said he would be targeting ISIS with “overwhelming air power.” In other words, he has no idea what he’d do, but it would be better and stronger than Obama.

Ben Carson had the best metaphors of the night. As a brain surgeon he had to tell patents hard truths, just like he would counsel the nation on foreign policy. As to Middle East dictators, he analogized to a plane losing altitude and putting on your oxygen mask first before helping your neighbor put on his. In other words, this is what counts as hawkish realism in conservative circles today.

Chris Christie thought he could use to his advantage the recent terrorist shooting in San Bernardino and the bomb threat that closed the Los Angeles Unified School District on the very day of the debate. Christie positioned himself as the 9/11 candidate, ready to defend the nation like he defended New Jersey after being appointed as U.S. Attorney on September 10, 2001 (which date of appointment is in dispute, but never mind). To the extent he described a policy, Christie sided with the neocons, favoring a no-fly zone over Syria. He said he would even risk war with Russia by shooting down any of Putin’s planes violating that zone. This appeared aimed at establishing his tough-guy cred, as opposed to a serious policy choice. As Christie elaborated, “See, maybe because I’m from New Jersey, I just have this kind of plain language hang-up.” The problem is that every time he brought up New Jersey, I thought Bridgegate.

It was odd when Trump went off-script, as he is want to do, and said nuclear proliferation was the biggest foreign policy threat facing the United States. (Perhaps his mind has focused on an earlier question about North Korea’s recent claim of possessing a hydrogen bomb.) Then Cruz outdid Trump citing a “nuclear Iran” as our greatest national security threat – apparently forgetting that Obama’s recent deal has already taken Iranian nuclear weapons off the table for the foreseeable future. Rubio even blamed Obama’s détente with Iran for causing the Sunnis to bow out in the fight against ISIS. Christie “agree[d] with Marco” on that line of thought.

Indeed, the big take-away from tonight’s debate seemed to be that in opposing President Obama’s strategy of engagement with Iran, the neocon Republicans (Rubio, Kasich and to a certain extent Bush, Christie and Fiorina) would like to put the American thumb on the scale in favor of the Sunni Gulf Arab regimes in opposition to the Shia ones in Iran and Syria. Maybe they’re just voicing the concerns of big oil. Or maybe they’re hopeless interventionists. But they bring to mind Menachem Begin’s quip when asked about Israel’s position on the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980’s: “I wish both sides success.” Or as a realist might wish, a balance of power status quo.

The funny thing about foreign policy is that it is completely unpredictable. Woodrow Wilson ran for office as an academic with immense domestic policy credentials, once even remarking that “[i]t would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs.” Then came World War I. George W. Bush campaigned for president on a “kinder and gentler” foreign policy. Then came the Iraq War. Even President Obama won the White House, or at least the Democratic nomination, largely as a result of his opposition to the war in Iraq and on a promise to bring the troops home from the Middle East, to where he has now had to send them back. But to the extent that philosophy portends policy, tonight’s debate was a real one on regime change. And as he has done on economic, trade and immigration policy, Donald Trump is scrambling the post-World War II Republican foreign policy of hawkish interventionism — and is pulling the party back to its pre-war isolationism, with a dash of unilateral muscular bravado.