Republican War Games and the Isolationist-interventionist Split

GOP debate features lively disputes on national security, solid performances by Rubio, Cruz, Bush and Christie but Trump triumphant nonetheless.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Jeb Bush respond to each other as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) listens during the CNN Republican presidential debate on December 15, 2015.
Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Jeb Bush respond to each other as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) listens during the CNN Republican presidential debate on December 15, 2015. Credit: AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

In the fifth Republican debate held on Tuesday night in Las Vegas, testosterone ruled. Everyone, including Carly Fiorina but possibly excluding Rand Paul, was gung-ho and raring to go. As if they were compensating for a childhood devoid of war games such as Risk or Battlefield 3, the nine GOP contenders smashed, bombed, liquidated or otherwise destroyed America’s enemies, unlike the country’s current weakling-in-chief, Barack Obama.

Ohio Governor John Kasich re-launched the Gulf War and “punched Russia in the nose." Ted Cruz doubled down on carpet-bombing ISIS. Ben Carson, pediatric neurosurgeon that he is, was undeterred by the possible killing of “thousands of innocent children." Trump supports rubbing out the families of terrorists to discourage enlistment in their ranks. Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina are pushing for a no-fly zone in Syria, as is Chris Christie, though the New Jersey governor is also looking to shoot down Russian planes as he launches a cyber war against China.

Fiorina wants to recreate a “warrior class” in the U.S. military by redrafting old generals. Rubio is pushing for a bigger, stronger, shinier army, like in the good old days. Rick Santorum, in the early debate among the four underachievers who didn’t make the main event, spoke of tens of thousands of American soldiers who will return to the Middle East.

It was an aggressive, militaristic at times chauvinistic debate, with no Human Rights Watch or Breaking the Silence around to demur. Perhaps the bellicose atmosphere was influenced by Sheldon Adelson, owner of the Venetian Hotel in which the CNN debate was held. It exposed the extreme and sudden shift in the public and political agenda since the election campaign got under way several months ago and Trump was still sparking outrage with his racist invectives against illegal Mexican immigrants.

The debate centered on ISIS and radical Islam, even when it ventured into other topics such as NSA monitoring, human rights or immigration. As far as the Republicans are concerned, the so-called trauma induced by the American failure in Iraq is officially over; an aggressive push for reengaging militarily in the Middle East, with or without boots on the ground, is perceived as a winning formula. Other traditional conservative causes, from defeating Obama-Care to outlawing abortions, will have to wait on the back burner for now.

The debate, the last for 2015, was spirited and lively at times. It highlighted several separate bilateral rivalries that provided the sparks of the evening: Jeb Bush, who is trying to stage a comeback from his miserable standing in the polls, came on strong against Trump, sniping that he is “a candidate of chaos and will be a president of chaos” and “you can’t insult your way to the presidency." Then there was the Cuban mano-a-mano matchup in which Rubio accused Cruz of being unrealistically tough on immigration and Cruz retorting that on the contrary, Rubio was unreasonably soft. Meanwhile, in the corner, Paul and Christie went after each other, with the former pricking the latter by comparing his wish to “start World War III” with his alleged involvement in the so-called BridgeGate scandal.

In the horse race of who won and who lost, one can mention Bush intermittently, Rubio, Cruz and Christie shining, with the last pinning his hopes on a surprise win in the February 9 primaries in New Hampshire. Fiorina, Kasich, and Paul didn’t falter either, but the time for them to catch up to the frontrunners is quickly running out. The early bird ‘junior varsity’ debate, in which Santorum, Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee and George Pataki participated, seems to have lost its attraction, if it ever had any.

But it was Trump, of course, who ultimately made the headlines, seized the day and possibly expanded his already substantial lead in the polls, despite the fact that he hadn’t shined in the debate and didn’t seem to be exerting himself to do so. “I am totally committed to the Republican Party,” he said, reassuring the GOP establishment as well as voters that he wasn’t contemplating an independent third party run. He didn’t completely close off his escape hatches, however, and he can always claim, as the late Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol once said, “I promised but I didn’t promise to keep my promise."

On the more substantial level, the debate exposed surprisingly deep divisions between two distinct foreign policy viewpoints in the party. The first group, which includes Cruz, Trump, Rand Paul, intermittently, and perhaps Fiorina at times as well, seeks to project a strong America but one that ultimately turns inwards to Fortress America. They oppose “boots on the ground” in the Middle East, are highly aversive to “nation-building” and would bring back Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gadhafi and Hosni Mubarak, if they only could. They are the isolationists, as their critics would call them, the realists, as Paul prefers, the heirs of Ronald Reagan, as their supporters would claim. Imagine where American would be today, Trump said, if it had invested the $3-4 trillion it wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan in the country’s education and infrastructure.

On the other side of the fence are the interventionists, the new neo-conservatives, and successors to the George W. Bush ‘axis of evil’ way of thinking. They include Bush’s brother Jeb, Rubio, Fiorina, Kasich, Christie and even Carson, though his views aren’t always decipherable. They are willing to put boots on the ground, to one degree or another. They maintain that the problem in Iraq or Libya wasn’t the toppling of the secular dictators but the fact the Obama simply botched the job. They reject the notion that Syria’s Bashar Assad should be left to rule under the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my ally. It would only strengthen Iran and Hezbollah, which are just as dangerous as ISIS, according to Rubio, who is the reported frontrunner in what the media calls “the Adelson primaries.”

But Cruz wasn’t born yesterday either: Benjamin Netanyahu, he claimed, sided with him on the question of keeping Assad in place. Rubio, not to be outdone, retaliated by citing Cruz’s vote against the bill that funded the Iron Dome. Trump, for his part, said Israel was a role model for building a fence that keeps out unwanted and potentially hostile intruders.

But other than Israel, no American ally was mentioned, not France nor Britain or Germany. Other than Israel, it seems, the GOP has only enemies, and they must be contained, combatted and possibly defeated, and the sooner the better.

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