WASHINGTON — Republican presidential candidates sparred Wednesday evening over foreign policy, especially the future of the nuclear deal with Iran and the legacy of the war in Iraq. But in a debate that at times descended into personal attacks, candidates largely seemed to share complete disdain for President Barack Obama’s diplomatic legacy — and passionate support for Israel.
“I will not shake hands with, I will not meet with, and I will not agree to anything with a country that says death to us and death to Israel and holds our hostages while we sign agreements with them,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie proclaimed in reference to Iran. He added that he would lead “an America that will be strong and resolute, and will once again be able to stick out its chest and say, ‘We truly are the greatest nation in the world, because we live our lives that way, each and every day.'”
Senator Marco Rubio, who appeared decisive in addressing foreign policy questions throughout the debate, said that, if he is elected, “our Air Force One will fly, first and foremost, to our allies, in Israel, in South Korea, and Japan. They know we stand with them, that America can be counted on.” He also promised that in addition to meeting with the leaders of Russia and China, he would meet with “those who aspire to freedom and liberty” in those states.
Restoring US might and strengthening allies was a common theme in the closing statements. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee offered a similar endorsement in his remarks. “At the end of my presidency I would like to believe that the world would be a safe place, and there wouldn’t be the threats, not only to the US, but to Israel and our allies, because we would have the most incredible well-trained, well-equipped, well-prepared military in the history of mankind,” he said. “And they would know that the commander-in-chief would never send them to a mission without all the resources necessary, but people wouldn’t bully us anymore because they would know that that would be an invitation to their destruction.”
Senator Ted Cruz also reassured his audience that, if he is elected, “Our friends and allies across the globe will know that we stand with them.
“The bust of Winston Churchill will be back in the Oval Office, and the American embassy in Israel will be in Jerusalem. Enemies across this world will know the United States is not to be trifled with. ISIS will be defeated,” he promised, using one of the acronyms for the radical Islamic State group. “We will have a president willing to utter the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism,’ and the [Iranian supreme leader] Ayatollah Khamenei will understand that he will never, ever, ever acquire nuclear weapons.”
Cruz’s promise to relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was a talking point in the previous Republican debate as well, and he wasn’t the only candidate to reiterate repeat such assurances. Businesswoman Carly Fiorina stressed her commitment – first made when she entered the race in May – to contact Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately upon being elected.
“On day one in the Oval Office, I will make two phone calls, the first to my good friend to Bibi Netanyahu to reassure him we will stand with the state of Israel,” Fiorina said. “The second, to the supreme leader, to tell him that unless and until he opens every military and every nuclear facility to real anytime, anywhere inspections by our people — not his — we, the United States of America, will make it as difficult as possible and move money around the global financial system.”
Differences on Iran and Iraq
Despite apparent similarities about the need to provide strong global leadership, key disagreements emerged between the candidates as to how that leadership should be demonstrated regarding the nuclear deal signed with Iran in July.
Senator Rand Paul, Ohio Governor John Kasich, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush said the next president should not immediately reverse the nuclear agreement with Iran.
Insisting that “it’s not a strategy to tear up an agreement,” Bush said that the US needed a more nuanced approach to confronting Iran. “The first thing that we need to do is to establish our commitment to Israel, which has been altered by this administration, and make sure that they have the most sophisticated weapons to send a signal to Iran that we have Israel’s back. If we do that, it’s going to create a healthier deterrent effect than anything else I can think of.”
The Republican party was staunchly against the deal cut by the Obama administration and world powers, which seeks to curb the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Several GOP candidates have vowed to overturn the agreement, which has been fiercely criticized by Israel, should they win the White House.
But at the party’s second debate, Paul took a different attitude, saying it would be “absurd” to “cut up the agreement immediately.” Kasich also took a measured approach, saying ripping up a deal agreed to not only by the US but also several allies was not a strategy for stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
“If they violate the deal, we put on sanctions, and we have the high moral ground to talk to our allies in Europe to get them to go with us,” he explained. “If they don’t go with us, we slap the sanctions on anyway. If they fund these radical groups that threaten Israel and all of the West, then we should rip up the deal and put the sanctions back on.”
An entirely different alignment appeared among the candidates regarding the Iraq War. While Bush defended brother George W. Bush’s track record in “keeping us safe” in the wake of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, Paul, physician Ben Carson and businessman Donald Trump all emphasized their early opposition — or at least, in Carson’s case, concerns — regarding the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
Trump, the GOP frontrunner in the early polling states of Iowa and New Hampshire, found himself under fire throughout the debate, including from challengers who attacked him for being insufficiently prepared to deal with difficult questions of foreign policy.
Trump, for his part, reiterated GOP concerns that foreign leaders have “absolutely no respect for President Obama.” He repeated statements that he would “get along” with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose recent increase in military involvement in Syria made US headlines this week.
“We don’t get along with anybody, and yet, at the same time, they rip us left and right,” Trump complained. “They take advantage of us economically and every other way. We get along with nobody. I will get along, I think, with Putin, and I will get along with others, and we will have a much more stable world.
“Syria’s a mess,” he continued. “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.” At a different point in the debate, however, the frontrunner accused Obama of lacking courage to act, saying that he would have entered the conflict “with tremendous force” when Syian President Bashar Assad began attacking Syrian civilians.
Times of Israel staff, AP and AFP contributed to this report.