Compared to the eleven previous Republican presidential debates in this election cycle, last night's two-hour event was downright civil. Donald Trump, a businessman-turned-Republican frontrunner who has immersed the airwaves since he made that trip down his escalator last July to announce his candidacy, wasn't his usual self. He didn't utter the phrase" Lyin' Ted" or "Little Marco" once during the entire debate. Marco Rubio, whose once-promising and inspiring candidacy is failing badly, stayed away from remarks about Trump's spray tan or his Minnie Mouse hands. The GOP debate on March 10 was one that Ohio Gov. John Kasich actually might have enjoyed being a part of -- there were no insults thrown, and everyone on the stage seemed to get along just fine.
The twelfth GOP debate was a dramatic shift in tone, but when the event turned to foreign policy and national security, the candidates on the stage exhibited about the same amount of cluelessness and hot air as the last eleven. Watching the back-and-forth, you could be forgiven if you forgot that Donald Trump once wrote a book called "The Art of the Deal" laying out how to negotiate, when to concede points to your negotiating partner, and what tactics should be used to sign a great and long-lasting agreement. Ted Cruz was just as bad, if not more so: his mindless talking points about ripping up the Iranian nuclear deal betrayed an utter lack of knowledge about what exactly was in the agreement to begin with.
Here are the top three most ridiculous foreign policy quotes of the night:
"We have a law that doesn't allow right now water boarding. They [ISIL] have no laws....we're working on a different set of parameters. Now, we have to obey the laws...But we have to expand those laws, because we have to be able to fight on at least somewhat of an equal footing." -Donald Trump
Trump has been flip-flopping on the subject of interrogation techniques and torture for his entire campaign (more on that in a later post). As early as a week ago, he essentially bragged that the U.S. military would be unable to refuse his orders if in fact he decided to authorize the torture of detainees in American custody. A day later, he revised his position, telling the Wall Street Journal that the U.S. is bound by international law just like everybody else. He switched his position again shorty thereafter: American soldiers must obey the law, but the law can be extended to include waterboarding. Nowhere in his answer tonight was any mention of the fact that current U.S. law, including the McCain-Feinstein amendment to the 2016 NDAA, prohibits any interrogation methods by U.S. personnel outside of the Army Field Manuel. Either the Republican frontrunner doesn't have a grasp about what current law is, or he doesn't understand how arduous and unwise it would be to override an anti-torture provision that was passed on a bipartisan basis just last summer.
"America needs a president who stands with our friends and allies, as I will do, and who stands up and demonstrates strengths to our enemies. That's why on day one, I will rip to shreds this catastrophic Iranian nuclear deal because the Ayatollah Khamenei must never be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons." -Ted Cruz
No Republican or Democrat serving in Washington today would disagree with the notion that the Iranian regime is a "destabilizing" and "nefarious" actor in the Middle East. It is virtually impossible to find a foreign policy or national security analyst or fellow in a Washington think-tank that would support the unconditional re-opening of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran or the scheduling of an official state visit at the White House between Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani. But Ted Cruz apparently forgets why the Iranian nuclear agreement was negotiated in the first place: to in fact deprive Tehran of the very nuclear weapons capability that he rightly says is a direct threat to the United States and its allies.
Go beyond the bucker-sticker slogan and one can see just how ridiculous Cruz's position on the Iran deal is. The accord, which was negotiated over a period of three years and across two U.S. Secretaries of State, establishes a durable verification, inspection, and monitoring regime of Tehran's nuclear fuel cycle -- a regime that the international community has never had before. The same IAEA monitors that were previously stonewalled by Iranian officials are now granted access to all declared research reactors, centrifuge manufacturing facilities, and enrichment plants that are the lifeblood of its nuclear program. Iran is kept under a strict cap on the number of centrifuges it can operate, the amount of low enriched uranium it can produce and store, the quality of uranium that Iranian scientists can produce, and the amount of heavy water the country can stockpile at any given time.
Without those restrictions in place, the Iranians would be fully free to build as many centrifuges as it would like and conduct as much research and development as it wants. The JCPOA, according to the IAEA's first progress report, is so far working as it was intended. Why Cruz would "rip" apart an arrangement that is proving to be successful speaks more to his political partisanship than it does to his concerns about nuclear nonproliferation.
"There is no peace deal possible with the Palestinians at this moment. There just isn't. Because there's no one to negotiate with. The Palestinian Authority is not interested in a serious deal and they are now in union with Hamas, an organization whose specific purpose is the destruction of the Jewish state." -Marco Rubio
Leaving aside for the moment the fact that the Palestinian Authority (which has long been dominated by Fatah) and Hamas are not exactly best friends, Rubio's statement is unequivocally false. No one would be foolish enough to assume that getting Israelis and Palestinians in the same room would be a cakewalk -- particularly after America's last bout with peace crashed and burned less than two years ago. But to suggest that Palestinians as a people or the Palestinian Authority as an institution are uninterested in acquiring a state of their own through negotiations is ludicrous.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has his faults. He could have accepted Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's peace proposal in 2008, which by all accounts was a generous offer by the Israelis and a deal that would have paved the way for a full Israeli withdrawal from nearly 95% of West Bank land. Abbas could be a far more vocal critic of the Palestinian stabbing attacks that has killed dozens of Israelis over the past six months. His repeated threat to sue Israel for war crimes in the International Criminal Court and gain statehood through the U.N. Security Council have been beyond unhelpful towards the creation of a more positive environment for bilateral negotiations.
But the fact remains that Abbas has historically been open to new peace initiatives when they are brought to him, including the latest proposal from France designed to kick-start an international peace conference this summer. A President Rubio's policy on Israeli-Palestinian peace would apparently be a Mideast-version of the Obama administration's policy on North Korea: wait for things to happen.
Trump, Cruz, and Rubio (and Kasich) want to show the American people that they would be wise stewards of America's foreign relations. And yet whenever foreign policy is discussed in these debates, they hurt themselves as soon as they open up their mouths.