Earlier this week, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who served in that position under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said of the debate between Republican presidential candidates, "The level of dialogue on national security issues would embarrass a middle schooler." In Thursday night's GOP debate, those candidates set out to prove his point — and they didn't even need Donald Trump in order to do it.
While there was the usual amount of bickering, lame jokes, and charges of hypocrisy, much of the debate covered foreign policy and national security. While nothing that was said would have surprised anyone who has been paying attention to the campaign over the last few months, here's an annotated guide to their comments:
"Barack Obama wants America to be more like the rest of the world," said Marco Rubio. "We don't want to be like the rest of the world. We want to be the United States of America." To hell with those other people in other places.
"If we capture any of these ISIS killers alive," said Rubio, "they are going to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and we're going to find out everything they know, because when I'm president, unlike Barack Obama, we will keep this country safe." In case you weren't sure, "find out everything they know" is supposed to imply that we'll start torturing prisoners again. Woo-hoo! And is the problem with ISIS that we lack intelligence about them? Rubio is pulling off a remarkable trick: He probably knows more about foreign policy than any of his opponents, but manages to sound just as dumb on the topic as any of them.
On "this abnormal situation":
"The American people are terrified," said Ben Carson. "That's why we have this abnormal situation going on right now." He wasn't even talking about foreign policy at that point, so no one understood what people are terrified of, or what "abnormal situation" he was referring to. Maybe he meant the Republican campaign.
On the perceived frailty of the U.S. military:
"We need to rebuild the military to defeat the enemy," said Ted Cruz. First, America has the strongest military in the world, by orders of magnitude. That the candidates can even question this is beyond bizarre — but Cruz wasn't the only one. The bashing of the U.S. military went on from there.
"You cannot destroy ISIS with a military that's being diminished," said Rubio. "When I'm president, we are rebuilding the U.S. military because the world is a safer and a better place when America is the strongest military in the world." What's stopping us from quickly taking care of ISIS isn't a lack of enough ships and planes. And to repeat: We still have the strongest military in the world. By a mile.
Cruz then responded that the military today is "debilitated" and "weakened" just like it was when Ronald Reagan took over from Jimmy Carter, and that "morale in the military has plummeted" under Obama. Imagine for a moment what Republicans would say if a Democrat said that about our fine fighting men and women.
On the "Chair of Consequence":
"The fact is what we need is someone on that stage who has been tested, who has been through it, who has made decisions, who has sat in the chair of consequence and can prosecute the case against Hillary Clinton," said Chris Christie. The Chair of Consequence sounds like something you'd find in an English boarding school, and it's not where they send you for showing leadership potential.
On "carpet bombing":
After being asked about his previous comments on "carpet bombing" ISIS and whether that's just tough talk, Ted Cruz said, "You know, you claim it is tough talk to discuss carpet bombing. It is not tough talk. It is a different, fundamental military strategy than what we've seen from Barack Obama." That's true, because the United States military hasn't carpet bombed anyone anywhere since Vietnam. "You want to know what carpet bombing is?" Cruz went on. "It's what we did in the first Persian Gulf war; 1,100 air attacks a day, saturation bombing that utterly destroyed the enemy." Also not true: We did lots of bombing in Gulf War I, but it wasn't "saturation" bombing, it was all targeted. Almost all the munitions we use today are precision-guided. And the reason the air campaign against ISIS doesn't use "saturation bombing" is that they're embedded in cities, surrounded by innocent civilians, not sitting out in the desert like Saddam's army was in 1991.
John Kasich was one of multiple candidates who said that in order to defeat ISIS, we need a coalition that includes "the Arabs, the Jordanians, the Saudis, the Egyptians, our friends in Europe, including the Turks." We already have that coalition.
Chris Christie was asked what he'd do about Libya, and he responded that "We need to bring together our European and our Sunni Arab allies." This too has already happened.
On climate change:
There was one question about climate change, which has barely come up in Republican debates. Unfortunately, the question was just whether Marco Rubio has flip-flopped on cap and trade. This told viewers nothing about what the candidates think we should do about climate change. In case you're wondering, the answer to that question is: nothing.
There was a lengthy discussion about immigration, taken up almost entirely by the important question of whether Rubio, Cruz, or Bush has flip-flopped on "amnesty."
To make clear his immigration bona fides, Cruz repeatedly mentioned his endorsement from Steve King, the most anti-immigrant member of Congress, who believes that most undocumented immigrants are drug mules who have "calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert."
In the midst of this argument, Cruz said, "I like Marco. He's very charming. He's very smooth." I rate that false, partially true, true.
Asked a question about immigration, Carson said, "I recognize that the vast majority of people coming in here probably are not those kinds of people, but that's not good enough. If you've got 10 people coming to your house and you know one of them is a terrorist, you're probably going to keep them all out." That appeared to be a call to stop all immigration to the United States.
Jeb Bush responded that it's possible to keep the country safe and still be a magnet for people hoping to improve their lives. This is why he's losing.
Megyn Kelly asked Marco Rubio about his prior comments that he would close down mosques and diners if that's where "radicalization" is taking place, and whether that runs afoul of the First Amendment. Rubio responded, "We must keep America safe from this threat. And yes, when I am president of the United States, if there is some place in this country where radical jihadists are planning to attack the United States, we will go after them wherever they are, and if we capture them alive, they are going to Guantanamo." Lots of people headed to Guantanamo under President Rubio.
Ben Carson was asked about a woman who asked a question at a Democratic town hall, a Muslim military veteran worried about how the recent rise in Islamophobia will affect her children. "We need to stop allowing political correctness to dictate our policies, because it's going to kill us if we don't," he responded. So to hell with her, I guess?
To the shock of viewers around the country, Bret Baier asked a genuinely good question about how the next president could tear up the Iran deal on his first day in office when Iran is already getting much of the benefits of the deal now, and wouldn't that just leave us without the ability to constrain their nuclear program. Marco Rubio responded that he'd tear up the deal on his first day in office — because grrrr — and also that he'd initiate some kind of global trade war.
John Kasich was asked a follow-up, about the fact that European countries are already reestablishing economic ties with Iran. He responded that the Belgian military is in the streets of that previously quiet country. No one understood what that had to do with Iran.
Asked a hypothetical question about a Russian invasion of Estonia, Carson said, "I think we ought to give Ukraine offensive weapons and I think we ought to fight them on the economic basis because Putin is a one-horse country: oil and energy." Indeed, if there's one thing you can say about Vladimir Putin, it's that he's a one-horse country.
So there you have it. One might assume that an actual president couldn't possibly be as halfwitted when confronted with actual policies as these candidates sound. Which is true — to a point. Obviously, if Ted Cruz was president, he wouldn't just say to the Joint Chiefs, "Let's start the carpet bombing!" and that would be that. His military and national security advisers would explain certain realities to him and present him with a set of options to choose from, none of which would actually be carpet bombing. The same scenario would play out on any number of issues: After taking office, the president would come to understand that things are much more complicated than he made them out to be when he was running.
Nevertheless, the campaign does give us some insight into the candidates' general perspectives and their habits of mind. Had we paid close attention in 2000, for instance, we might have understood the simplistic, Manichean way George W. Bush saw the world, even if we couldn't have imagined just how much damage that would do. So even if the campaign doesn't give us a perfect preview of the next presidency, it does give us a sense of how the president might approach the challenges that foreign policy presents.
But all this tough talk may also be setting everyone up for disappointment. The underlying premise of all the Republican rhetoric on these issues is that strength is like a wizard's staff, a magical tool that once deployed will quickly and easily solve any problem. If only that were true.