The second Republican presidential debate was a very long and chaotic affair. Foreign policy and the military were hot topics this round and everyone wanted to chime in. Although much of the discussion was filled with the same re-wrapped, hyperbole-filled position statements, let’s see where the candidates failed when it came to the details.
Donald Trump on Russia’s involvement in Syria
Syria’s a mess. You look at what’s going on with ISIS in there, now think of this: we’re fighting ISIS. ISIS wants to fight Syria. Why are we fighting ISIS in Syria? Let them fight each other and pick up the remnants.
Currently, we don’t allow ISIS to take on the Al Assad regime without intervention because ISIS will continue to have a safe haven to operate from, from which it will continue to make stability in Iraq impossible. Additionally, dealing with a well established ISIS even in Iraq alone would be harder to do without also putting pressure on their seat of power in Al Raqqua, Syria.
ISIS will also continue to metastasize without attacking key leadership and material targets in Syria, and it will pose an increasingly greater threat the U.S. and our allies around the globe. Finally, this would largely mean that Trump would be fine with ISIS taking over Syria as a whole as the Assad regime continues to lose ground on its Eastern flank to the Terror State. It also means that any anti-Assad forces that are moderate would be at greater risk of being destroyed by ISIS.
Trump’s strategy is not totally invalid, but it is more complicated and invites greater risk than he seems to be willing to admit or that he knows. Additionally, Trump never addressed the issue of Russia now building up its forces in Syria, which was part of the original question, aside from his same old line that he would “get along with Putin” and that Putin will respect him.
Carly Fiorina on Russia’s involvement in Syria
Having met Vladimir Putin, I wouldn’t talk to him at all. We’ve talked way too much to him.
What I would do, immediately, is begin rebuilding the Sixth Fleet, I would begin rebuilding the missile defense program in Poland, I would conduct regular, aggressive military exercises in the Baltic states. I’d probably send a few thousand more troops into Germany. Vladimir Putin would get the message. By the way, the reason it is so critically important that every one of us know General Suleimani’s name is because Russia is in Syria right now, because the head of the Quds force traveled to Russia and talked Vladimir Putin into aligning themselves with Iran and Syria to prop up Bashar al- Assad.
Russia is a bad actor, but Vladimir Putin is someone we should not talk to, because the only way he will stop is to sense strength and resolve on the other side, and we have all of that within our control.
We could rebuild the Sixth Fleet. I will. We haven’t. We could rebuild the missile defense program. We haven’t. I will. We could also, to Senator Rubio’s point, give the Egyptians what they’ve asked for, which is intelligence.
We could give the Jordanians what they’ve asked for...
Considering the candidates were at the Reagan Library for this debate, there is no evidence that not talking with potential foes and established foes alike improves the geopolitical or strategic situation. Reagan himself engaged with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, which was a strategy that worked.
As for rebuilding the Sixth Fleet, a point Fiorina came back to multiple times in the evening, there is some truth to the fact that America’s large capital ships, those being amphibious assault ships and aircraft carriers, have not spent the time in the Mediterranean and around Europe that they did during the Cold War. As such, there aren’t anywhere as many ships temporarily within the Sixth Fleet’s purview as there once were. But capabilities and the overall size of the force have changed since the Reagan era. Most importantly, the Sixth Fleet has gotten a dramatic boost in resources recently, with no less than four destroyers now being based in Rota, Spain. These are in addition to rotational assets. You can get a good idea of what the Commander of U.S. Naval forces in Europe thinks about his own force levels here.
So while there is some truth to Fiorina’s Sixth Fleet comment, it’s not as if the Sixth Fleet is not getting anymore high-end resources, and it’s not the only place one could argue the Navy could use more assets and presence. Also, air assets can be forward deployed at a fraction of the cost of a Carrier Strike Group or a Marine Expeditionary Strike Group, but have a similar persistent effect. This strategy has been realized on the Horn of Africa and could be realized in the Mediterranean, especially in regards to Libya’s descent into civil war and Islamic extremism.
Right now America is experiencing a “carrier gap” where even having two Carrier Strike Groups deployed at one time is becoming problematic, due to the retirement of the USS Enterprise without a direct replacement.
If Fiorina wants to return to the days of task forces regularly prowling the Mediterranean we would likely have to expand our carrier fleet, which could include building smaller aircraft carriers.
When it comes to missile defense, yes, the type of systems that are to be deployed to Europe have changed, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. AEGIS ashore, based on the same anti-ballistic missile systems aboard many U.S. Navy cruisers and destroyers, are being deployed to Romania, and soon also to Poland. These are the most reliable anti-ballistic missile systems we have today and are more suited at countering medium-range ballistic missiles which are the real threat to the region, especially from rogue states like Iran.
The idea of creating a missile shield that could intercept Russia’s massive stockpile of ballistic missiles is not realistic, so it isn’t clear exactly what she intends to rebuild.
She also said that she would conduct aggressive military exercises in the Baltic States. This is exactly what we have been doing as part of Atlantic Resolve for the last year. I don’t know how much more aggressive she wants to be, but so far we have thrown everything we have at some point into the region.
As for Iran’s General Sulemani traveling to Moscow, this may have been a thumb in the eye of Barack Obama, and surely it has worked to tighten relations with Russia, but Iran does not dictate Russian foreign policy. Putin’s goals of usurping U.S. hegemony in various regions are clear on their own and if anything, Russia is using Iran for this, not the other way around.
The quip about Egypt only wanting intelligence is odd. The fall in relations between Egypt and the U.S. is a very complicated and controversial one, largely centered around the fact that the current regime gained power via a coup, an act that was widely shunned by the Obama administration even though the military-led el-Sisi government (the U.S. and Egyptian militaries have long held close ties) kicked out the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood and has been very aggressive with fighting terrorism. From there, relations have cooled rapidly and have included near-term embargoes on weaponry and other resources.
Meanwhile, Russia has stepped into the vacuum, selling Egypt MiG-29s and naval vessels, and has ordered the Russian military to train alongside the Egyptian military.
So as far as Egypt’s cooling relationship with the U.S. to be about intelligence, I have no clue exactly what Fiorina is talking about.
Ted Cruz on the Iran nuclear deal
The single biggest national security threat facing America right now is the threat of a nuclear Iran. We’ve seen six and a half years of President Obama leading from behind. Weakness is provocative, and this Iranian nuclear deal is nothing short of catastrophic.
This deal, on its face, will send over $100 billion to the Ayatollah Khamenei, making the Obama administration the world’s leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism.
This deal abandons four American hostages in Iran, and this deal will only accelerate Iran’s acquiring nuclear weapons. You’d better believe it. If I am elected president, on the very first day in office, I will rip to shreds this catastrophic Iranian nuclear deal.
As far as triaging threats to America, it’s subjective, although one could name anything from North Korea to our economic policy just as easily as you could Iran. There is quite a bit of bluster here, but saying that the Iran deal will only accelerate that country’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons is inaccurate. If the deal is executed as planned it would keep Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon for well over a decade, albeit once the terms of the deal conclude, Iran could restart its nuclear program.
As far as the $100 billion in funds that could end up financing proxy wars and terrorism, it’s still a debatable – but relevant – issue.
John Kasich on the Iran nuclear deal
Well, let me just say this. First of all, I think it’s a bad agreement, I would never have done it. But, you know, a lot of our problems in the world today is that we don’t have the relationship with our allies. If we want to go everywhere alone, we will not have the strength as if we could rebuild with our allies.
Now, this agreement, we don’t know what’s going to happen in 18 months. I served on the Defense Committee for 18 years. I’ve seen lots of issues in foreign affairs, and foreign — in terms of global politics, you have to be steady.
Now, here’s the — if they cheat, we slap the sanctions back on. If they help Hamas, and Hezbollah, we slap the sanctions back on. And, if we find out that they may be developing a nuclear weapon, than the military option is on the table. We are stronger when we work with the Western civilization, our friends in Europe, and just doing it on our own I don’t think is the right policy.
The idea that the U.S. could simply “slap the sanctions back on” is not entirely accurate. Right now, the sanction regime that we have in place, which includes many international partners, will most likely not last. The political will to keep them in place is wavering.
Without international partners, sanctions would largely be via the U.S. alone, which will not have nearly the same impact on Iran as the international ones that are in place today.
Trump on Syria and Obama’s red line
I wouldn’t have drawn the line, but once he drew it, he had no choice but to go across. They do bear some responsibility, but I think he probably didn’t do it, not for that reason.
Somehow, he just doesn’t have courage. There is something missing from our president. Had he crossed the line and really gone in with force, done something to Assad — if he had gone in with tremendous force, you wouldn’t have millions of people displaced all over the world.
If the U.S. had gone in with extreme force the Assad regime could have fallen, leaving a huge power vacuum in Syria, the result of which remains uncertain. It is possible that the areas that were protected under the Assad regime would have also become embroiled in a power struggle which could have led to massive migrations of refugees in an even more sudden fashion as what is being experienced today. If extremist elements were to have seized total control of the country, the result would have been catastrophic.
Marco Rubio on Obama’s red line
Let me tell you — I will tell you we have zero responsibility, because let’s remember what the president said. He said the attack he would conduct would be a pinprick. Well, the United States military was not build to conduct pinprick attacks.
If the United States military is going to be engaged by a commander-in-chief, it should only be engaged in an endeavor to win. And we’re not going to authorize use of force if you’re not put in a position where they can win.
And quite frankly, people don’t trust this president as commander-in-chief because of that.
This is a false and somewhat unnerving statement, that the U.S. military was not built to conduct pinprick attacks. The truth is the U.S. military has a full range of capabilities, from targeting a single individual to destroying entire nations with nuclear weapons. Scalability is precisely what we look for in force structure and tactics, allowing for the most options for a given scenario. Seeing the U.S. military as just a blunt hammer and anvil where full-scale war is the only speed allowed is quite frankly, disturbing.
If you enter a prolonged conflict, fighting to win, and doing so as fast as possible is commonly a good thing, but that depends on what winning means. Occupying another destroyed, socially and ethnically fragmented country without an exit strategy is not necessarily a win. Nor is decapitating a dictatorship without knowing that whatever will replace it will be any better.
Trump on knowing key foreign policy details
So I will say this, though, Hugh was giving me name after name, Arab name, Arab name, and there are few people anywhere, anywhere that would have known those names. I think he was reading them off a sheet.
And frankly I will have — and I told him, I will have the finest team that anybody has put together and we will solve a lot of problems.
You know, right now they know a lot and look at what is happening. The world is blowing up around us. We will have great teams and great people.
Later Trump elaborated:
...I will know more about the problems of this world by the time I sit, and you look at what’s going in this world right now by people that supposedly know, this world is a mess.
Trump is right, not many people know the minutia that is discussed within foreign policy oriented circles, and he is right that having good advisers is very important for any Commander-In-Chief.
The only problem is that without a good base to go from, it makes interpreting and making the right decisions in an independent manner that much harder. It also pushes a lot of responsibility and power over to advisers which were never elected to office.
Rubio on knowing key foreign policy details
I think if you’re running for president, these are important issues, because look at around the world today.
There is a lunatic in North Korea with dozens of nuclear weapons and long-range rocket that can already hit the very place in which we stand tonight. The Chinese are rapidly expanding their military. They hack into our computers. They’re building artificial islands in the South China Sea, the most important shipping lane in the world...
North Korea does have a rocket theoretically capable of hitting California, the Unha-3, but it has never been weaponized or tested as missile, nor is it thought that North Korea has the capability to build a reentry vehicle with a miniaturized nuclear warhead.
Furthermore, this is a liquid-fueled rocket, that stands on a launch pad for days at a time, and it’s not exactly a second-strike deterrent.
Trump on opposing the second Iraq war
I am the only person on this dais — the only person — that fought very, very hard against us (ph), and I wasn’t a sitting politician going into Iraq, because I said going into Iraq — that was in 2003, you can check it out, check out — I’ll give you 25 different stories.
In fact, a delegation was sent to my office to see me because I was so vocal about it. I’m a very militaristic person, but you have to know when to use the military. I’m the only person up here that fought against going into Iraq.
Trump’s often touted opposition to Operation Iraqi Freedom has morphed over the last few months. At first he continually said he had these views in 2004, almost a year after the war begun, a time when such views were not so uncommon. Now he has moved the date to 2003, a time which there is little public evidence of his supposed dissent.
Rubio on arming Syrian rebels early on
I want to go even deeper — and I want to go even deeper in that direction, because I think the belief that somehow by retreating, America makes the world safer has been disproven every single time it’s ever been tried.
Syria’s a perfect example of it. The uprising in Syria was not started by the United States; it was started by the Syrian people. And I warned at the time — this was three and a half years ago — I openly and repeatedly warned that if we did not find moderate elements on the ground that we could equip and arm, that void would be filled by radical jihadists.
Well, the president didn’t listen, the administration didn’t follow through, and that’s exactly what happened. That is why ISIS grew. That is why ISIS then came over the border from Syria and back into Iraq.
What is happening in that region is the direct consequence of the inability to lead and of disengagement. And the more we disengage, the more airplanes from Moscow you’re going to see flying out of Damascus and out of Syria...
I’m not sure it’s possible that disengagement can be “disproven” as a means to make America safer, but regardless of that, Rubio states that arming Syrian Rebels would have kept ISIS from growing. That is possible, but not a fact. The same move could have hastened ISIS’s growth as they could have gotten their hands on advanced arms sooner. This scenario remains a matter of opinion and conjecture.
As far as the idea that Moscow would increase its involvement in Syria if we decrease our involvement in the region, that remains highly speculative. There may not be a need for direct Russian involvement if the U.S. was not there in the first place.
Additionally, how much more involved in Syria would Rubio like us to be? A full-on ground invasion? The United States is flying combat missions over that country daily along with establish unmanned aircraft orbits. It is not clear exactly what Rubio would do militarily to improve the situation and keep Russian forces from propping up Assad’s regime.
Ben Carson on going into Afghanistan and Iraq
I have no argument with having a strong leader, and to be aggressive where aggression is needed. But it is not needed in every circumstance. There is a time when you can use your intellect to come up with other ways to do things. And I think that’s what we have to start thinking about.
There is no question that a lot of these problems that we have been talking about in terms of the international situation is because we are weak. It is because our Navy is so small. It is because our Air Force is incapable of doing the same things that it did a few years ago.
It’s because our Marines Corps is not ready to be deployed.
The Navy may be smaller than what Carson wants, and the Marines may be experiencing a low readiness state, but the Air Force is actually capable of doing more than it could just a few years ago, although with less frequency and magnitude due to shrinking end strength.
Rubio on intellect versus military might when it comes to fighting terrorism
But radical terrorism cannot be solved by intellect. It cannot — they require — what they need, is they need an operating space. That’s what Afghanistan was for Al Qaida. It was a vacuum that they filled, and they created an operating space.
That’s why they had to be drawn out of there. That’s why they had to be destroyed. It is the reason why ISIS has grown as well. We allowed them — we allowed a vacuum to emerge in Syria. They used it as an operating space to grow; and today they’re not just in Iraq and Syria anymore, they’re now in Libya, conducting operations in the Sinai.
They’re now in Afghanistan, trying to supplant the Taliban as the most powerful radical jihadist group on the ground there, as well. You cannot allow radical jihadists to have an operating safe haven anywhere in the world.
This is true to some extent, although today we are seeing a change in both tactics and recruitment when it comes to international terrorism. The shift from large-scale attacks that are centrally funded, and using well-trained operatives recruited using traditional methods, are dimming as the Internet and lone-wolf smaller scale attacks are becoming the tactic of choice by groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda. This change in operating doctrine does not require traditional “operating space” like we saw in the last two decades. Instead cyberspace becomes the operating space.
Fighting modern terrorism using now-dated justifications for conventional military force may be a step in the wrong direction and play more into the terrorist hands than the other way around. Which isn’t to say that denying ISIS an entire region to subjugate is not a worthy military endeavor.
Scott Walker on taking on ISIS with the 3,000 military personnel already in Iraq
To be clear, what I said the other day was that we need to lift the political restrictions that are already in play. Barack Obama’s administration has put political restrictions on the military personnel already in Iraq.
We need to lift those and then we need to listen to our military experts, not the political forces in the White House, but our military experts about how many more we sent in. And we certainly shouldn’t have a commander-in-chief who sends a message to our adversaries as to how far we’re going to go, and how far we’re willing to fight, so I’m not putting a troop number.
What I’m saying is lift the political restrictions. When you do that, you empower our military personnel already there to work with the Kurd and the Sunni allies, to reclaim the territory taken by ISIS. And to do so in a way that allows that ISIS doesn’t go back in Syria, as we were just talking about here.
That is the fundamental problem going forward. We have a president — and Hillary Clinton was a part of this, by the way, who has made political decisions for our men and women in uniform. I want the men and women at home to know, if I’m commander-in-chief, I will only send you into harm’s way when our national security is at risk. And if we do, you know you’ll have our full support, the support of the American people, and you’ll have a clear path for victory.
This is not exactly possible. Forces like those in Iraq today are not just a box of GI Joe soldiers that you can outfit as you wish to play war. Those 3,000 troops are there for force protection or as advisers today, not as combat elements. As such, more troops would have to augmented those already in country so that those already there that are actually trained to fight on the battlefield in small units can do so while other units provide force protection, supply, command and control, transportation and other necessities.
As for his clear path to victory comment, just flipping a switch and throwing 3,000 troops onto the battlefield that aren’t necessarily suited to be there is a far cry from a clear path to victory.
Fiorina on Future Force Structure
We have spent probably 12 minutes talking about the past. Let’s talk about the future. We need the strongest military on the face of the planet, and everyone has to know it. And, specifically, what that means is we need about 50 Army brigades, we need about 36 Marine battalions, we need somewhere between 300, and 350 naval ships, we need to upgrade every leg of the nuclear triad...
The army will have 35 Brigade Combat Teams by 2017, down from a wartime high of 45. Fiorina wants to add five more to the war time high number, which will be an increase of roughly 25-30% of the standing force at the time she comes into office. That is a larger army than the one that existed while we were fighting both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
She also wants 36 Marine battalions. Assuming she means Infantry battalions, this would be an additional dozen to what is planned when she comes into office, which is roughly the same increase in size as what she proposes for the Army.
The Navy is a different case, as there is already a 300-ship goal in place, and 50 more ships is a huge difference in procurement and sustainment cost compared to that goal. The cost of reaching that 350-ship goal all depends on how she would like to reach it, either bringing reserve ships back into action or to build new ships and of what type.
She did not mention the Air Force, nor did she allude to how she came up with these numbers, nor how they are justified.
As far as upgrading the nuclear triad goes, this is already underway to a certain degree with a replacement for the Ohio Class ballistic missile submarine just getting off the ground, an upgraded nuclear free-fall bomb being tested, and a new stealth bomber in development that will eventually take on a nuclear role. The land-based Minuteman missile force, although it has received small upgrades, still is rapidly aging and could use replacement or a very deep upgrade and overhaul.
Rubio on what he will use Air Force One to do during his administration
It would also fly to China, not just to meet with our enemies, not just to meet with those adversaries of ours that are there, but also to meet with those that aspire to freedom and liberty within China. I would even invite them to my inauguration.
We would also fly into Moscow and into Russia. And not just meet with the leaders of Russia, but also meet with those who aspire to freedom and liberty in Russia. And ultimately, I hope that my Air Force One, if I become president, will one day land in a free Cuba, where its people can choose its leaders and its own destiny.
I’m not really sure how he plans on flying to China or Russia to meet with key political dissidents in those countries. I don’t think Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin really invite world powers to fly into their countries so that they can prop up their political enemies.
In the end we got yet another crowded debate that was very light on facts and explanations but very high on hyperbole. Everyone wants the most powerful military in the world, and the fact of the matter is they will already have it when they step into office. Nobody even mentioned reforming the Pentagon or areas within the DoD where we could save money instead of spending it.
In all, it was a crowded stage, with eleven candidates going at it at once. This made for any meaningful policy debate almost impossible, while at the same time being highly conducive for theatrical bickering. In fact, the happy hour debate which ran before it was chocked full of policy information, especially in the foreign policy arena. A refreshing atmosphere than what we saw during the main event.
Hopefully the next debate, on October 28th in Boulder, Colorado, will have a few less people on the stage and few more substantive statements to digest.
Images via AP, transcript via CBSNews.com
Contact the author Tyler@jalopnik.com