Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate featured a heavy dose of foreign policy. Sometimes the candidates got their facts wrong, and none of them staked out new positions on the issues. But the back-and-forth was illuminating nonetheless. It highlighted a split in Republican ranks over whether the United States should try to be the world’s leader or is making the mistake of becoming the world’s policeman.
Calls for U.S. global leadership resonate with most Americans and especially with most Republicans. They know it has served them—and others—well over the years. So it’s not surprising that various points during the debate Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina called for strong U.S. leadership. However, Jeb Bush did the best job of reminding listeners why U.S. leadership is necessary by citing Syria today:
Donald — Donald’s wrong on this. He is absolutely wrong on this. We’re not going to be the world’s policeman, but we sure as heck better be the world’s leader. That’s—there’s a huge difference where, without us leading voids are filled, and the idea that it’s a good idea for Putin to be in Syria, let ISIS take out Assad, and then Putin will take out ISIS? I mean, that’s like a board game, that’s like playing Monopoly or something. That’s not how the real world works.
We have to lead, we have to be involved. We should have a no fly zone in Syria. There are — they are barrel bombing innocents in that country. If you're Christian, increasingly in Lebanon, or Iraq, or Syria, you're going to be beheaded.
And, if you're a moderate Islamist, you're not going to be able to survive either. We have to play a role in this be able to bring the rest of the world to the issues before it's too late.
But U.S. leadership doesn’t always produce great results. Sometimes it creates new problems or assumes burdens best ignored. Donald Trump, who sparked Bush’s plea for U.S. leadership by saying that the United States “can’t continue to be the policeman of the world,” made that point in rebutting Bush:
Assad is a bad guy, but we have no idea who the so-called rebels—I read about the rebels, nobody even knows who they are. I spoke to a general two weeks ago, he said—he was very up on exactly what we’re talking about. He said, “You know, Mr. Trump? We’re giving hundreds of millions of dollars of equipment to these people, we have no idea who they are.
So, I don't like Assad. Who's going to like Assad? But, we have no idea who these people, and what they're going to be, and what they're going to represent. They may be far worse than Assad. Look at Libya. Look at Iraq. Look at the mess we have after spending $2 trillion dollars, thousands of lives, wounded warriors all over the place—who I love, OK? All over.
Rand Paul made a similar point in noting that any effort to impose a no-fly zone over Syria could put the United States in a confrontation with Russia.
Some Americans know instinctively whether they are with Rubio, Fiorina, and Bush, or Trump and Paul. But many others are torn. They see the value of U.S. leadership, but also know that good intentions do not guarantee good results. So if the GOP presidential candidates keep up the conversation, they might just help voters better understand the choices and dilemmas that next president will face.
In Case You Missed It
If you didn’t get home in time to watch the undercard debate, Time and the Washington Post transcribed the hour-long event. And, if you didn’t stay up to watch the primetime two-hour debate, Time and Washington Post offer transcripts (with Post providing a few annotations along the way). Time’s Charlotte Alter explains “the deal with that Putin 60 Minutes episode Trump mentioned” in the debate, and Adam Taylor of the Washington Post explains what Carly Fiorina meant when she said she met Putin in “sorta a green room setting.” The New Yorker’s John Cassidy discusses how policy substance intruded the fourth GOP debate. The Week offers “Rand Paul Thinks Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton are ‘The Same Person’ on Foreign Policy.” Bernie Sanders released an official statement on immigration from his Senate office, and his campaign released key elements of his immigration plan. The National Review’s Katherine Timpf tells us how thankful we should be for Rand Paul’s foreign policy, and Charles Krauthammer explains why the latest GOP debate was the most revealing Republican debate yet. Marco Rubio not only has a “foreign policy” section on his website, he also lays out his plans for China and Cuba. Martin O’Malley offers his plan for veterans and military families, and Donald Trump explains how he would reform the U.S.-China trade relationship.
The next Democratic debate is tomorrow night in Des Moines, Iowa. CBS, KCCI-TV, and the Des Moines Register are hosting the event, which starts at 9 p.m. EST and which CBS stations will be carrying live. If you are traveling then, you can catch the livestream on the CBS News website. John Dickerson, the host of CBS’s Face the Nation, will moderate, and he is expected to focus on economic and energy issues. CBS asked Dickerson nine questions in advance of the event, including what he is trying to accomplish and who he thinks has the most at stake in the debate. Twitter will provide CBS with real-time charts and graphs of users’ engagement throughout the evening, and hot topics on Twitter will lead to questions for the candidates. Be sure to use the hashtag #DemDebate. And yes, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Martin O’Malley will be sharing the debate stage.
Republicans hold their next debate in a little over a month, on Tuesday, December 15. If you’re counting, we are 80 days away from the first nominating event on February 1, and 361 days away from the election.