WASHINGTON — After weeks of waiting, Americans finally had a chance Thursday evening to watch 10 of 17 Republican contenders for the 2016 presidency face off in the first of a series of debates hosted by Fox News. But if viewers expected any action on the foreign policy front, they found that there was little daylight between the candidates when it came to the Iran deal, ISIS or Israel.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who had an understated presence during most of the debate, was the only speaker who laid out what he planned to do with the Iran nuclear agreement should he be elected in 2016.
“You terminate the deal on day one, you reinstate the sanctions put on with Congress, and you convince our allies to do the same,” Walker answered, when asked if he stood by his commitment to “tear up the deal” on his first day in office.
Libertarian-leaning candidate Senator Rand Paul faced a tougher time answering foreign policy questions, as he attempted to reconcile his positions with stances more popular with the GOP base.
“I opposed [the deal] and will vote against it,” Paul asserted. He argued that as “a Reagan conservative,” he does not oppose negotiations on principle, but said that he only “believes in negotiating from a position of strength.
“I don’t think the president negotiated from a position of strength, but I don’t discount negotiations,” he explained.
“Obama gave up too much too early. If there’s going to be a deal, you have to believe that the Iranians are going to comply,” he added, saying that Secretary of State John Kerry told him that he did not trust Tehran. “I would have never released sanctions before there’s consistent evidence of compliance.”
Paul was pushed later on prior comments in which he said that he supported cutting foreign aid to Israel — a position unpopular with some Republicans, particularly with the well-mobilized evangelical Christian base.
Paul said that his critique stemmed not from opposition to Israel, but rather to the growing national debt that was bankrolled by borrowing money from China.
“Israel is a great ally and this is no particular animus to Israel, but you don’t borrow money to give to someone else,” Paul explained.
“We shouldn’t send money to countries who burn our flag, Israel is not one of them,” Paul added, and said that if the US were to have a budgetary surplus, he would not oppose giving foreign aid to Israel.
Other than Paul’s clarification, most of the perspectives offered on foreign policy — and particularly on the Iran nuclear agreement — echoed each other.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee also complained vigorously about the Iran deal — although his rhetoric was significantly toned down from earlier statements in which he implied that President Barack Obama was facilitating a second Holocaust through the nuclear agreement.
“Reagan said ‘Trust, but verify.’ Obama believes in trust but vilify — trust our enemies and vilify anyone who doesn’t agree with you,” Huckabee quipped. “We got nothing. We didn’t even get four hostages out. Iran got everything it wants.
“When somebody points a gun at your head and loads it, you need to take it seriously, and by God I take it seriously,” Huckabee concluded, but, like Paul, did not indicate how he would respond to the deal if he were to be elected.
Front-runner and real-estate magnate Donald Trump struggled to answer with specifics on a hypothetical question regarding the reported trip to Moscow by Iranian commander Qassem Suleimani, who is currently still under an international travel ban. Asked about what he would do if a similar incident happened on his watch, Trump answered: “I would be so different right now from what you have now. I would be the polar opposite.”
As he waded deeper into the question — without addressing the specific issue of Suleimani or the steps he would take to respond — Trump slipped up criticizing Obama’s willingness to agree to “the nuclear deal with 24-hour periods” — a figure he repeated again later in his answer.
Although Trump did not specify which periods he meant, it was likely that he was referring to the 24-day process delineated under the agreement for securing access to contested Iranian sites suspected of being used for nuclear development.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz, like Trump, turned the question into a referendum on Obama’s foreign policy strategy.
“Leading from behind is a disaster. We have alienated our friends and allies and our enemies are getting stronger,” said the senator, who has frequently complained that the Obama administration is not sufficiently supportive of Israel.
Cruz directly addressed the topic of Suleimani — if not what he would do about his travels — claiming that the Iranian general was “directly responsible” for the deaths of over 500 US service people in Iraq.
“We need a new commander in chief who will stand up to our enemies and have credibility,” Cruz proclaimed, offering as an example Iran’s 1981 decision to free its American hostages on the day that Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president.
In his final statement, Cruz emphasized his foreign policy credentials alongside his social conservatism, listing among the things that he would do immediately upon being elected president as to rescind the nuclear deal with Iran and move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a statement that garnered applause from the Ohio audience.
Hours before the main debate, the candidates who failed to poll among the top 10 also addressed the Iran deal, which is extremely unpopular among Republican voters.
“I would a whole lot rather have [fellow Republican candidate] Carly Fiorina doing the negotiations instead of John Kerry,” said Texas Governor Rick Perry, who is struggling to match the achievements of his 2012 primaries campaign.
“The issue for us is to have a Congress that stands up and says not only ‘no,’ but ‘Hell, no,’” he added.
Fiorina, a former business executive, also criticized the process that led up to the July agreement. “Obama broke every rule of negotiation,” she complained. “Yes, our allies are not perfect, but Iran is at the heart of almost every evil that is going on in the ME through their proxy.”