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The Five Worst Foreign Policy Statements at Last Night’s GOP Debates

As Republicans wake up from their first taste of a crowded and extremely accomplished field of 2016 candidates, many will praise the candidates for what will likely be remembered as one of the more substantive and combative debates in recent memory.

As foreign policy tends to be one of the issues on which Republicans agree the most– Sen. Rand Paul notwithstanding– it serves as one of the best metrics for which to judge aspiring presidential candidates. After all, they will mostly be saying the same thing, so judging them on how they say it results much easier. While the candidates were much more eager to discuss immigration and the economy last night, viewers did get a taste of the urgency of the Republican Party to tackle radical Islamist terrorism. Some, like former Hewlett Packard executive Carly Fiorina, excelled by virtue of proposing real initiatives to combat both conventional and cyber-terrorism. Others, mostly thanks to a frustrating lack of specificity, floundered.

Below, the five most disappointing comments in both of Fox News’ Republican debates last night.

5. Sen. Ted Cruz:

What we need is a commander in chief that makes — clear, if you join ISIS, if you wage jihad on America, then you are signing your death warrant… We need a president that shows the courage that Egypt’s President al-Sisi, a Muslim, when he called out the radical Islamic terrorists who are threatening the world.

Left to its own devices, this is a great soundbite for the campaign trail. We will kill the terrorists! We will be like Egyptian military strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who ousted his Muslim Brotherhood predecessor before his country became another Libya! But what does any of this mean? Sen. Cruz did offer one bit of concrete policy: he would revoke the citizenship of any Americans fighting with the Islamic State. This is a necessary move and a welcome suggestion from Cruz but, the truth is, most ISIS terrorists aren’t American citizens, and the ones who attempt acts of terror on American soil have mostly been killed before revoking their citizenship would make a difference.

Calling radical Islamist terror what it is is a necessary first step that the White House has routinely refused to take, and it is reassuring that Sen. Cruz has no qualms about it. But then what?

4. Sen. Rand Paul:

I’ve been fighting amidst a lot of opposition from both Hillary Clinton, as well as some Republicans who wanted to send arms to the allies of ISIS. ISIS rides around in a billion dollars worth of U.S. Humvees. It’s a disgrace. We’ve got to stop — we shouldn’t fund our enemies, for goodness sakes.

This was, bafflingly, a major applause line at last night’s primetime debate, likely because the situation in which ISIS was born is so complicated many in the audience believed the American military was simply buying the Islamic State Humvees on the taxpayers’ dime.

Yes, the United States gave arms to Syrian rebels opposing President Bashar al-Assad, and destabilizing Syria further allowed for the expansion of the Islamic State. But much of the bulk of U.S. weaponry that has fallen into their hands has been captured from the Shiite Iraqi army operating out of Baghdad– that’s where the Humvees came from. The Shiites are not ISIS’s allies; they are “rafidi infidels.” The Iraqi army is largely a failure, yet, largely out of a desire to see the state of Iraq continue existing, America continues to fund Baghdad.

Solving the ISIS problem would be much easier if all we had to do was stop giving ISIS money.

3. Gov. Mike Huckabee:

The purpose of the military is kill people and break things.

This comment, especially provocative when out of context, was an attempt to reject the idea of allowing servicemen and women to receive sex change treatments on the taxpayers’ dime while in active service. Not spending more money on sex changes may resonate with Republican voters, but reducing the vital and extremely complex services our troops provide the world over to killing people and breaking things?

The Army Corps of Engineers employs 37,000 servicemen dedicated to constructing facilities for both military and emergency purposes, to protect from natural disasters and protecting the nation’s nature areas. Military medical professionals specialize in a wide variety of fields and work to keep our troops healthy as they serve. American soldiers have been pivotal in aiding those harmed by the southeast Asian tsunami in 2004, fighting the Ebola outbreak in west Africa, and cleaning up after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Our troops are not the hordes of Genghis Khan. They do much more than kill people and break things.

2. Gov. Bobby Jindal:

We’re going to take the political handcuffs off the military. We will arm and train the Kurds. We will work with our Sunni allies. They know we will be committed to victory.

“Arming the Kurds” has become a popular shorthand for many conservatives who want to show they are serious about fighting ISIS, despite the fact that Kurdish groups have not had much success outside of Kurdish areas, and the odds of a successful mission in an Arab Sunni territory is very low. Kurdish forces have been without a doubt the most successful ground troops in fighting the Islamic State, particularly given that the most the Iraqi army has done to fight them is run away and hand them our Humvees. The problem with Gov. Jindal’s statement, particularly in light of the NATO member Turkey’s air campaign against multiple Kurdish factions, is that it is too vague. Which Kurds?

There’s the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a US-designated terrorist group of Marxist stripes that Turkey considers its arch nemesis. There are the People’s Protection Units of Syria– the YPG and YPJ– which have been among the most successful troops against ISIS. And there are the Peshmerga of Iraq, which have also conducted successful operations and made of Erbil the largest Iraqi city safe for Christians and Yazidis.

The YPG/YPJ wear the red star proudly and support the PPK; the Peshmerga under President Masoud Barzani do not.

Without specifying, Jindal may have just committed to arming a group whose propaganda looks like this:

 1. Sen. Lindsey Graham:

According to the generals that I know and trust, this air campaign will not destroy ISIL. We need a ground force in Iraq and Syria, and America has to be part of that ground force. According to the FBI and the director of national intelligence, Syria’s becoming a perfect platform to strike our nation. I’ve got a very simple strategy as your president against ISIL. Whatever it takes, as long as it takes, to defeat them.

It is perhaps the greatest failure of last night’s debate moderators that this comment went unchallenged. Graham got away with casually proposing a ground invasion of Syria using American troops that would last “as long as it takes.”

When the United States began its military actions in Iraq, there was a clear villain in power: Saddam Hussein. That nation’s leader was our enemy and an ally of our enemies, and we went in to take him out. Syria has a nominal leader, Bashar al-Assad, who is a mortal enemy of the Islamic State and is embroiled in a bitter, years-long civil war. Many of Syria’s religious minorities, the Christian Assyrians and Alawites, view Assad as the last line of defense against ISIS. An American ground invasion of Syria may very well force us into an alliance with Assad, a mass murderer who has used chemical weapons against civilians– and, by proxy, an alliance with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei. How does Sen. Graham square his opposition to the Iran deal with a plan to keep the Ayatollah’s favorite puppet dictator in power?

And if he wants to take down ISIS and Assad simultaneously– how, specifically, would we do that? And what is going to fill the resulting power vacuum? For all we know, Sen. Graham may have a strong answer to this; unfortunately, no one at Fox News cared to ask.

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