Watching the Republican debates has become a surreal experience, particularly when it comes to foreign policy. Terrorism in general and ISIS in particular were very much the focus area of the fifth and final GOP presidential debate in 2015 and fear is what’s for Christmas. There was actually nothing to debate during the undercard discussion…hardcore war is the consensus. Hoorah Master Sergeant may I have another? Well yes, if the GOP has anything to do with it, you’re certain to get your fill. Here’s what they had to say:
Lindsey Graham: “If you don’t realize we need more American boots on the ground in Iraq and eventually in Syria as part of a regional army you’re not ready to be Commander in Chief…There’s four things you need to understand about this war: it’s a religious war, them against the world. If you don’t fight them over there, they’re coming here. If you don’t hit them first, they’re gonna hit us. If you’re not determined to fight it as a war you’re gonna lose it…The next 9/11 is coming from Syria, it’s coming soon, we better do something about it.” On the contrary, there’s only one thing you need to understand about this so-called “war” on terror. It’s the number one recruiting tool for terrorism. If you have figured that out, then there are a few other things you might consider before you take anything Lindsey Graham says seriously: first, ISIS hasn’t actually attacked the United States. Considering the fact that the United States has been bombing them since 2013, if they were to attack the United States it would be much more an act of retaliation than anything the United States is doing. This group wasn’t even around during 9/11. They had nothing to do with it. That said, if you want to motivate them to replicate it in the future, listen to Lindsey Graham.
Mike Huckabee: “The way we defeat them ideologically is that we remind people that what their intent is to kill us and it is our intent to use every means possible to get to them before they get to us…We need to go after [ISIS] with significant ground troops, air campaign…” That doesn’t sound a lot like an ideological strategy to me. It’s more of a military strategy. Unfortunately, it’s the same military strategy that has destroyed the Middle East and has created a boiling cauldron for Islamic terrorism to thrive.
Rick Santorum: “This is an important time in our country. We have entered World War III…” I can’t imagine what Mr. Santorum would call a real war. The “apocalypse” is all I can really think of. Mr. Santorum’s follow up remarks were heartfelt but misguided. He continued by explaining that ISIS has established a caliphate and that Muslims who saw it as legitimate were required to fight for it. He stated that the only way to combat the caliphate was to “take back the land in Iraq.” The two fatal flaws in this line of thinking are as follows: first, it’s not our land, never has been and never will be. That’s not what Mr. Santorum is saying but it’s important to note nonetheless. Second, Mr. Santorum wants to use Sunnis to take back the land. In fact, he specifically spoke out against using Shiites. That is just plain ignorant of the facts. The most effective resistance to ISIS comes from Shiite Iran, the established and Shiite friendly government in Syria, and the Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq. The established Sunni governments (Saudi Arabia, Qatar etc.) don’t want to fight other Sunnis (ISIS). There’s a conflict of interest there and they’ll never be wholeheartedly in that fight. They just want Bashar al Assad gone and they hope to put in place someone else to rule the country when he is. That strategy has failed every time it has been tried for 15 years. The focus on ousting Assad is corrupting the entire effort and will ultimately lead to nothing but more pain and suffering for the innocent people of the region. It would be much better if the United States were completely uninvolved.
George Pataki: “I would give the Ukrainians lethal weapons so they could defend themselves, I would create the no-fly zone [in Syria], and if Russian planes flew into it in violation of what we had declared, yes [I would shoot them down].” Never mind the fact that Russia is already flying in the relevant airspace and was invited to fly there by both the Syrian and Iraqi governments. Compare that to the United States, who was not invited by the Syrian government for obvious reasons: they’re trying to overthrow it. That of course makes the U.S. presence in the country illegal according to international law and therefore, it undermines international law. If the United States doesn’t follow the basic principles they helped to create following World War II, why would Russia follow them?
Chris Christie: Mr. Christie doubled down on the no-fly zone rhetoric stating, “I’d say to (Vladimir Putin), ‘Listen, Mr. President, there’s a no-fly zone in Syria; you fly in, it applies to you.’ And yes, we would shoot down the planes of Russian pilots if in fact they were stupid enough to think that this president was the same feckless weakling that [President Obama] is right now.” To Mr. Christie’s credit, he has consistently maintained that the government ought to enforce the laws it puts on the books. He has stated this repeatedly about federal drug laws despite the way they contradict the 10th amendment of the United States’ Bill of Rights, and he is saying it now regarding a hypothetical no-fly zone in Syria (a country where aircraft from Syria, the United States, and Russia are all currently flying). The problem with Mr. Christie is that the laws he intends to enforce so absolutely are completely irrational and, as Senator Paul pointed out, are a recipe for World War III. It would be ideal not to make bad laws in the first place, but in the event that foolish laws are put in place, I would rather have a government that ignored them.
Marco Rubio: “You can’t carpet bomb ISIS if you don’t have planes and bombs to attack them with.” Marco Rubio was making a pitch to “rebuild” the military and he has produced a budget plan to do exactly that (it adds roughly one trillion dollars to military spending over the next ten years). The Pentagon’s budget is already so inflated and has been scrutinized so effectively it’s amazing that increasing it is still a part of any Republican’s rhetoric. The United States spends more money on its military than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Great Britain, Japan, Germany, France, India, Brazil, Italy, and South Korea combined. That is more than the next 11 largest militaries in the world. Add roughly $100 billion per year and you can add Australia, Turkey, Israel, Canada, and the UAE to the list. Quite to the contrary, what we need to start doing is divesting ourselves of foreign wars, close the bases overseas, bring soldiers back home to their native state where they can actually defend their own country, and start cutting back on military jobs so soldiers can do more productive work as farmers (or whatever peaceful profession they so choose). The National Guard is more than sufficient to defend the United States. Marco Rubio’s active duty monstrosity is only necessary to maintain an empire.
Jeb Bush: “The focus ought to be on the single fact that Hillary Clinton wants to double down on a failed foreign policy and we need to be united to defeat that because we’re going to be in a place that is far less secure than it is today. Don’t you all agree?” To be frank, yes and no. We do agree that Hillary Clinton wants to double down on a failed foreign policy. That foreign policy is called “interventionism” and it’s the same foreign policy that Mr. Bush advocates. Mrs. Clinton started a war in Libya and another in Syria. She currently advocates for a “no-fly zone” just like Jeb. Mr. Bush’s problem, besides his bankrupt ideology, is the way in which Mrs. Clinton conducted the war. He doesn’t like her tactics and her rhetoric. But the reality is that he’s pushing the same exact foreign policy. What’s more important, however, is that Jeb’s brother, former President Bush, conducted what is likely to be the crime of the century – an aggressive invasion of Iraq in 2003. The number of innocent people that have died as a consequence of this one bad decision are countless. The entire Bush family should be apologizing and humbled by this tremendous mistake, not emboldened by it. Unfortunately all Jeb can say is that Hillary blew it because she and President Obama pulled out of Iraq too early. That may or may not be true but the point is that the original sin – the invasion of Iraq in the first place – is the reason things got so messed up over there. That responsibility belongs to Jeb’s brother, and it also rests with Mrs. Clinton (as she voted for it). Jeb could make a convincing case for peace by advocating against Mrs. Clinton and her terrible policies, but he is committed to the same ideas with a different dressing. Of the current presidential candidates, the only ones we can reasonably say would not have supported the heinous mistake of invading Iraq are Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Rand Paul. Mr. Sanders actually voted against the war, Mr. Trump verbally criticized it in 2003, and Senator Paul has opposed war at every turn while his father was one of the nation’s most outspoken critics of the war. Mr. Bush’s perception of history is so far gone it’s not hard to understand why he so frequently fumbles over his words.
Carly Fiorina: When asked about working in collaboration with Russian president Vladimir Putin, whose military is also fighting against ISIS in Syria, Mrs. Fiorina stated, “I will not speak to [Vladimir Putin] personally until we’ve rebuilt the 6th Fleet a little bit right under his nose; rebuilt the missile defense program in Poland right under his nose; and conducted a few military exercises in the Baltic states.” The US 6th Fleet, for those that are unfamiliar, is made up of American Navy ships stationed largely in the Mediterranean and responsible for military events in Europe and Africa. As to her remarks, Mrs. Fiorina seems completely oblivious to the fact that NATO’s ceaseless expansion to the east is exactly why Vladimir Putin intervened in Ukraine. That’s not even to mention the fact that American diplomats are well known to have made promises to Russia that NATO would not expand “one inch” to the east as a precondition for ending the Cold War (promises long since broken). Putin doesn’t want NATO on his doorstep and he’s obviously not going to get completely pushed around. Think about how the United States might feel if the Russians brought Canada or Mexico into a modern day version of the Warsaw pact. It would be one thing if Canada or Mexico voluntarily joined, but the United States had to support a coup d’etat to oust the Russian-friendly, democratically elected government of Ukraine in order to facilitate change. Now, Mrs. Fiorina wants to have a dick-measuring contest with Putin. Quite frankly it’s scary that both she and Vladimir Putin would have their hands on nuclear weapons in the event that she were elected. There are too many decent, innocent people out there for this kind of overt bravado to rule the day. For me, it’s very convincing evidence that concentrated power in central governments is extremely dangerous to humanity: all of the crazy people gravitate towards power.
John Kasich: “There is a big problem. It’s called encryption. And the people in San Bernardino were communicating with people who the FBI had been watching, but because their phone was encrypted, because the intelligence officials could not see who they were talking to, it was lost.” To whine about encryption in this instance is absurd. Malik and her husband Syed Farook (the San Bernardino suspects) were communicating, at least in part, using Facebook and Twitter direct messages (as the Republicans have been apt to remind us). They were also communicating, as Mr. Kasich self-identifies, with people on an FBI watch-list. Accordingly, all the police (or FBI) had to do was ask for a court-ordered warrant. That is a 15-minute conversation and the tech companies would have coughed up access. And what do you know, the information could have been right there. It sounds a lot like the police either have too much information to handle already, or they did poor police work by not taking the simple legal steps necessary to focus on legitimate associates of known terrorist suspects.
Ted Cruz: Moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Ted Cruz if his previous sentiment, and I quote, “to carpet bomb ISIS into oblivion” meant that he would level the ISIS capital of Raqqa, a city of several hundred thousand civilians. This is an entirely legitimate question that highlights the true nature of war as it contrasts with the true nature of Cruz’s rhetoric. Cruz replies that he would “carpet bomb where ISIS is, not a city, but the location of the troops. You use air power directed — and you have embedded special forces to direct the air power. But the object isn’t to level a city. The object is to kill the ISIS terrorists.” This might sound good and reasonable to war-thirsty voters but the reality is that ISIS is in the city and bombs have a kill diameter of up to several football fields. You cannot carpet bomb anyone, anywhere without killing an absolute ton of innocent people. You cannot even selectively bomb ISIS without killing thousands of civilians, even if you were using highly precise weapons with the lowest blast radii in the inventory. For example, the Republicans rail on President Obama for his halfhearted bombing campaign in Syria while the United States is currently investigating an American-led attack on the Syrian village of Al Khan in which it allegedly murdered 36 civilians (including 20 children). This is what happens with a war and this is why we shouldn’t fight them except in absolute self-defense. The GOP should be railing on Obama for starting another war of choice; instead they are upping the ante several orders of magnitude. Ted Cruz’s suggestion is an invitation for mass-murder. Amazingly, he is being painted by the GOP establishment as an “isolationist.” The absurdity of such a blatant piece of propaganda is astounding.
Ben Carson: Mr. Carson, for better or worse, was largely ignored at the debate and when he did have a chance to take sides between the noninterventionist Paul and the interventionist Rubio he said, “I don’t want to get in between them. Let them fight.” It’s too bad Mr. Carson can’t apply that same principle to the Middle East in general where the tensions are largely between Sunni extremists (financially backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar) and their less populous Shiite rivals (largely backed by Iran, much of the post-Saddam Iraqi government, and their Alawite ally in Syria, Bashar al Assad). Mr. Carson is too decent of a human being to be corrupted so badly by the neo-conservative war ideology in Washington D.C. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know any better and there’s not enough well-informed policy strategists that strongly believe in peace.
The Anti-Insane Alternative:
Rand Paul: Dr. Paul continues to be the only person on the stage that is not completely insane. Unfortunately, if his poll numbers continue to drag he’s likely to lose his invitation to offer up a more peaceful alternative. When asked if he supported overthrowing yet another government (Bashar al Assad) in the Middle East, Paul answered: “No, I think it’s a huge mistake. I think regime change in Syria [is a huge mistake], and this is what — I’ve been saying this for several years now. In 2013 when we first went in, I said, you are going to give arms to the allies of al Qaida, to radical jihadists? That’s crazy. But the other thing I said is the great irony is you will be back fighting against your own weapons. Had Assad been bombed when he used chemical weapons two years ago, ISIS would be in charge of all of Syria now. We have to have a more realistic foreign policy and not a utopian one where we say, oh, we’re going to spread freedom and democracy, and everybody in the Middle East is going to love us. They are not going to love us.” Dr. Paul, of course, is exactly correct. Not only is it utopian to think you can remake the world with violence and everyone will love you for it, it’s extremely counterproductive and has proven every single time to make the situation much, much worse. It has also painted an enormous bull’s eye on the American population – many of whom want nothing to do with a war in the Middle East.
Donald Trump: Mr. Trump was the only other person on stage who managed to join Dr. Paul outside the corner of crazy for just a moment when he said the following: “We have done a tremendous disservice, not only to the Middle East, we’ve done a tremendous disservice to humanity. The people that have been killed, the people that have wiped away, and for what? It’s not like we had victory. It’s a mess. The Middle East is totally destabilized. A total and complete mess. I wish we had the $4 trillion or $5 trillion. I wish it were spent right here in the United States, on our schools, hospitals, roads, airports, and everything else that are all falling apart.” Trump has tended to speak in vague and ostentatious terms, but this particular utterance was a sharp deviation characterized by both substance and courage – by far the most positive thing he has stated throughout his campaign. Unfortunately, amidst a lot of contradictory evidence and a myriad of troubling rhetoric, it’s hard to envision Trump, the self-proclaimed “most militaristic” person in the race, as a peace candidate.
What’s most difficult to understand, however, is not that some people want war. Unfortunately that’s nothing new. It’s that the Republican primary debates are full of self-professed Christians. That represents a huge cognitive dissonance, and the only explanation in my view is that they believe in the religion of the nation-state much more than Christ’s moral teaching. Jesus Christ did not preach about bombing other people. It’s hard to imagine him having a place in such a conversation today except to say “no.” Quite to the contrary, Jesus was martyred for his beliefs. He didn’t physically defend himself before he was unjustifiably murdered and he certainly didn’t preemptively attack anyone else. Jesus Christ, Christian mythology aside, advocated on behalf of peace and brotherhood. He, like so many other moral leaders, advised us to love one another and to turn the other cheek. And he had (and continues to have) an incredibly positive influence on the world. One would think of empathy and compromise, or giving an inch rather than drawing a line in the sand when it comes to Christ. In fact, real Christians who actually followed Christ’s teaching were persecuted and willingly died for their beliefs for nearly 300 years before the religion was co-opted by the state and the teachings of lesser men made broad exception for violence. Nothing that these so-called modern day Christians say has any resemblance to the namesake of their supposedly cherished belief system. If I was a Christian I would be embarrassed about the public figures that set such a poor example regarding my beliefs. They certainly embarrass me as a fellow American citizen and they provide a poignant excuse for terrorists to justify their equally absurd behavior. In summary, the GOP strategy that Obama adopted halfheartedly to create ISIS sounds a lot like the GOP strategy to defeat ISIS.
Justin Pavoni is a former Air Force officer and F-15E evaluator pilot. Pavoni has deployed twice to Afghanistan, served as a Special Operations liaison, and has flown 550 combat hours. Justin and his wife Jessica run a blog at http://www.libertybug.org.