On Tuesday, December 15, 2015, the nine leading presidential candidates of the Republican party met in Las Vegas to debate on stage, moderated by Wolf Blitzer, with the help of conservative Hugh Hewitt and CNN’s own Dana Bash. The party’s final debate of the year was a simplified “Fear and Anger” debate, ignoring the vast array of substantive issues, and allowing Republican bloviators to puff themselves up on questions about national security. The candidates (Rand Paul, Carli Fiorina, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, and Donald Trump) argued that they possessed some key to defending the US; but their notions on national security were amateurish, uninformed, and outdated. If any of these candidates gain power over Washington, their government will escalate crises, strengthen current enemies like ISIS and Al Qaeda, and provoke potential partners like Russia, China, and Iran; possibly even into open warfare.
As the candidates began their introductory remarks, Paul led by arguing that the fight against ISIS is an Arab fight, and needs to remain so. He critiques sharply Trump’s and other candidates’ anti-Islamic rhetoric for losing us the battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab street. Bush and Kasich both led with vague notions about leadership and excellence, leaving behind neither any lasting impressions nor cohesive ideas on policy. Christie and Fiorina both lathered the audience with their anger at Democrats. Christie accused the Democrats for “betraying” the nation; while Fiorina claimed that her experiences in diminishing Hewlett-Packard’s stock values (while serving as the company’s CEO) and in being fired show that she has been “tested” as a leader – obviously ignoring the fact that she failed that test. Rubio defended bigots following Trump and other conservatives for “holding onto traditional values,” and claimed that the Democrats want the US to be like the rest of the world. Cruz simply stated that refugees from terror should be banned to keep out “jihadists,” while Carson opined that a Congressional declaration of war on ISIS might somehow make some strategic difference. Finally, Trump congratulated himself for “open[ing] up a very big discussion [on Muslims] that needed to be opened up.”
With Trump’s remarks on Muslims up for discussion, Bush criticized Trump and called for concerted action with the Arab states against ISIS. Bush argued that Trump’s rhetoric pushed potential Arab allies away, into the arms of extremists, and that Trump was a “chaos candidate, and would be a chaos president.” Rubio and Cruz both posed as moderate bigots, attacking both Trump for going too far, and President Obama for not going far enough (for promoting the admission of Syrian refugees). Christie repeated his tired claim that serving as a federal prosecutor gave him unique executive experience and proved his ability to tackle all imaginable problems (a claim he would reiterate continuously throughout the debate). Finally, Kasich agreed with Paul that the US needs to work with European and Arab partners against ISIS; and then he actually criticized Obama’s administration for also managing to attend to other issues besides the war with ISIS, such as the Paris conference on climate change.
The conversation then moved to electronic surveillance and other matters, with Cruz and Rubio feuding over the USA Freedom Act. Cruz had supported the measure, claiming that it increased the National Security Agency’s overall surveillance capability (while limiting the ability to spy on American citizens). Rubio, who also argued for increased government intrusion (saying our security services need “more tools, not less tools”) argued that the law diminished security capabilities. Paul, not surprisingly, argued his anti-federalist line that the NSA’s bulk collection of metadata makes us less safe, and is also ineffective in preventing domestic terror situations like the San Bernardino attack. Carson continued his argument that the government needs to monitor places deemed “anti-American,” that the US needs a formal declaration of war, and that our society can no longer afford political correctness. Bush waxed vaguely on “leadership” (his own campaign’s centerpiece theme), and talked about an American “military second to none” as if the US did not already possess by far the most well-trained and overwhelmingly equipped force in the world. Fiorina completed this conversation by calling on the federal government to monitor social media sites for potential terror indicators. Cruz, Rubio, Carson, and Fiorina therefore all push for a much larger and more intrusive federal government as a key to national security; while Bush hopes mostly for an expanded military budget. Paul remained “the only fiscal conservative on the stage,” as he later noted in his final remarks.
As the conversation turned to ISIS, Cruz showed that he does not understand basic military terminology, confusing “carpet bombing” with surgical strikes (which he called for in response to moderators’ questioning about his calls for the former). He does, however, argue more effectively for a need to work cohesively with the Kurds to build a successful state structure in the region. Rubio wants an expanded US Air Force and air campaign, while working with some hypothetical (and unidentified) “Sunni ground force” as our “boots on the ground.” He at least claims to understand (unlike many of his party comrades) that information and propaganda (and psychological warfare) are key to a political war with terror groups. Trump, unable to form any cohesive thoughts on national defense or security strategy, merely calls on the US to begin targeting families and civilians in terrorist-controlled areas (especially the families of identified terrorists). Trump’s complete lack of historical knowledge, particularly on the historical ineffectiveness of repression in reducing popular opposition, threatens to escalate the terror war to an unprecedented level of violence and barbarity. Paul, meanwhile, recommends working with Assad’s regime in Syria, rather than against it, and argues that the last two decades of regime change (in Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and Syria) produced the very problems we face today. Fiorina (knowing as little about military policy as she does about public policy) prefers, in place of a strategy, simply “bring[ing] back the warrior class” of generals (citing specifically Generals Petraeus, McChrystal, Mattis, Keane, and Flynn). She counterfactually blames Obama for their “political” retirements, and ignores the reality of at least three of the five retirements (not to mention that generals who retired voluntarily, some like Petraeus with significant medical problems, may not wish to return to duty under an obvious strategic amateur with no political experience). Finally, Carson agrees with Trump’s proposal to target ISIS’s oil income capabilities, and to destroy “the caliphate” (without actually identifying what kind of campaign or results would be needed to achieve that). Carson is ready to commit US ground forces for yet another major war in the Middle East. However, following a commercial break, he also stated that the US cannot fix the problems in the Middle East with a “few little bombs, and a few declarations,” seemingly contradicting his own focus on a declaration of war as having some strategic significance.
As the conversation turned to other security problems, the candidates’ language became frighteningly apocalyptic. Fiorina argued that the US should openly provoke Russia through an escalated crisis environment of increased military opposition to Russian movements and increased provocations near Russia’s borders. Christie similarly earned Paul’s designation of him as the “World War Three candidate,” for stating that he would shoot down Russian planes in a no-fly zone in Syria. Fiorina then expressed the incredible notion that to confront North Korea, we should first bully and provoke China; and then ask China for their help in containing Kim Jong-Un’s regime. Bush and Christie both also want to up the ante with China, at least in pursuing a more vigorous cyberwar against them. The GOP showed clearly a tug-of-war between Paul’s non-interventionism and the other candidates’ open wish for greater international tension and conflict (and their clear willingness to risk, or even fight, a global nuclear war in doing so).
We cannot really blame the Republican candidates for answering the questions asked of them (sparingly as they did). No questions were asked about jobs or the economy; about infrastructure or education; or about climate change or social problems. There was only the briefest dialogue between Cruz and Rubio on immigration reform (each effectively criticizing the other for seeking to ease the path to citizenship for undocumented aliens), with Bush blaming immigration for increasing rates of heroin addiction. Rubio continues his war on fiscal conservatism by calling for more border controls, more laws and regulations, and more overall federal government. The issue fit into the context of CNN’s overall moderation of the “Fear and Anger” debate focusing on threats to the US. Of course, the GOP did not take (and the CNN did not ask) questions about increasing firearms safety and security in our communities, or about the security and safety of minorities in an overwhelmingly anti-minorities police culture and criminal detention system. This was mostly a white man’s “Fear and Anger” debate. Carson’s soporific mumblings, and Fiorina’s toneless obliviousness to her own irrelevance, helped to put a diversified face on the stage; and Cruz and Rubio were there to help bring Latino voters to the party. But the focus remained on WASP-oriented fear and anger. Furthermore, all the candidates demonstrated a simplistic, linear, zero-sum, nineteenth-century chess-game approach toward modern multidimensional and asymmetric warfare, and they showed their unpreparedness to lead in the twenty-first century wars that they wish to provoke, escalate, and fight. They also wish to alienate and provoke some of the key players in these fights (such as Russia, China, and Iran), players which have not yet aligned on the other side, and which have great motivations to fight collectively against our current enemies. The candidates proved to anyone watching that the GOP is able neither to protect our nation, nor to help the US participate constructively in the modern world.
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