To be sure, it wasn't all good. Here were a few of the lowest points, in no particular order:
*Senator Ted Cruz remains the most annoying member of the "Call it Radical Islam" movement, bringing this point up multiple times during the proceedings. It's never been clear to me how this is supposed to be helpful in the fight against ISIS. But the most plausible explanation is that it allows us to vilify Iran and ISIS at the same time, neglecting the inconvenient fact that they are vehement enemies of each other. Later on in the night, we received some confirmation of this explanation when Cruz bizarrely claimed that "ISIS and Iran have declared war on America". This is patently false; Iran is not at war with the US. And Cruz actually said this twice, even mentioning offhand that Iran was a regime change he could support. But unfortunately, there was no follow-up on any of this.
*Dr. Ben Carson affirmed that he was okay with the deaths of thousands of innocent children and civilians. He objected to the term "ruthless", however, preferring "tough" and "resolute" to describe his potential policy of indiscriminate violence towards Syria and Iraq.
*Donald Trump doubled down on his proposal to "very firm on families" of terrorists. Though he doesn't say it quite in this way, he's implying that if we promise to summarily murder or imprison their families, would-be attackers might be dissuaded.
*Trump also went even more ridiculous on his proposal to close the Internet, which Rand Paul attacked. In a response, Trump said this (emphasis mine):
And as far as the Internet is concerned, we're not talking about closing the Internet. I'm talking about parts of Syria, parts of Iraq, where ISIS is, spotting it.
Now, you could close it. What I like even better than that is getting our smartest and getting our best to infiltrate their Internet, so that we know exactly where they're going, exactly where they're going to be.See, here Trump is implying is that there is some meaningful difference between "their Internet" and our Internet. The trouble is that the Internet is, well, interconnected. That's kind of the whole idea. It's not like ISIS is using a Jihadi-exclusive edition of Facebook. If they're trying to recruit new people, they have to go to the spaces where those people already are. So short of massively interrupting all telecommunications infrastructure in the Middle East (which would surely impact allies as well, and wouldn't inhibit activities of ISIS sympathizers in other regions), it makes no sense to talk of "their Internet" versus "our Internet". It's all just the Internet.
*Carly Fiorina bragged that she helped the NSA spy on Americans after 9/11 by apparently letting the NSA implant spying devices in HP equipment. She seems to think this is a winning line in the present climate of fear. Fortunately for us, she's never right.
*Chris Christie committed that he would institute a no-fly zone in Syria and would shoot down a Russian plane that violated it. More on this later.
*In trying to advocate regime change against Assad, multiple candidates presented fears of a Shiite Crescent in the Middle East (a power bloc including Iran, Iraq (post-2003), and Syria). This was of course rather confusing since ISIS and Al Qaeda are offshoots of Sunni Islam and are currently fighting the Shiites of Iran, Shiite militias of Iraq, Hezbollah, and the Syrian military. For proponents of regime change though, this contradiction was apparently unimportant.
The above items are definitely terrible, but we should recognize that some variation of these themes is really par for the course. Somebody is going to call Putin a thug. Somebody thinks the NSA should be more powerful. The military will always be too small. And Iran is usually vying with Russia to be the Greatest Threat Ever, even as both of them are fighting ISIS, who is the other Greatest Threat Ever. All very confused themes; all standard issue from both parties. The difference is that this debate saw real, intelligent counterarguments pushing back against the stupid. Here were the highlights, the vast majority of which came from Senator Rand Paul.
*Sen. Paul came out of the gates very strong, and his prepared opening remarks give us some hope that his campaign might be shifting focus in a positive way. It's good enough that it's worth quoting at length:
The question is, how do we keep America safe from terrorism? Trump says we ought to close that Internet thing. The question really is, what does he mean by that? Like they do in North Korea? Like they do in China?
Rubio says we should collect all Americans' records all of the time. The Constitution says otherwise. I think they're both wrong. I think we defeat terrorism by showing them that we do not fear them. I think if we ban certain religions, if we censor the Internet, I think that at that point the terrorists will have won. Regime change hasn't won. Toppling secular dictators in the Middle East has only led to chaos and the rise of radical Islam. I think if we want to defeat terrorism, I think if we truly are sincere about defeating terrorism, we need to quit arming the allies of ISIS. If we want to defeat terrorism, the boots on the ground -- the boots on the ground need to be Arab boots on the ground.
As commander-in-chief, I will do whatever it takes to defend America. But in defending America, we cannot lose what America stands for. Today is the Bill of Rights' anniversary. I hope we will remember that and cherish that in the fight on terrorism.This really is a remarkable statement. He defends the Internet, praises the entire Bill of Rights (not just the 2nd amendment), and opposes regime change all in one fell swoop. It's not perfect, but this is much better than we've seen in any of the Presidential debates thus far.
*Later on, Paul eloquently doubled down on his opposition to regime change policies, saying the following:
We have to have a more realistic foreign policy and not a utopian one where we say, oh, we're going to spread freedom and democracy, and everybody in the Middle East is going to love us. They are not going to love us.*Paul also had a strong rebuttal to Trump's hysteria about going after families by making an appeal to the Constitution:
If you are going to kill the families of terrorists, realize that there's something called the Geneva Convention we're going to have to pull out of. It would defy every norm that is America. So when you ask yourself, whoever you are, that think you're going to support Donald Trump, think, do you believe in the Constitution? Are you going to change the Constitution?*Interestingly, even Trump sounded a slightly noninterventionist tone at times. When asked whether the US would be safer with dictators in power in the Middle East, Trump replied that we would have been better off if we spent the money at home instead of trying to topple dictators. As he said, we did a "tremendous disservice to humanity... it's not like we had victory."
*Cruz, Trump, and Paul all finally said something decent on Libya, after everyone had remained effectively silent in the previous debates on this issue. All three noted that the fall of Gadhaffi gave way to chaos and the rise of ISIS in the region, and Cruz and Paul both implied the same would occur if Assad were removed in Syria.
*Last but not least, perhaps the best line of the night came after Chris Christie talked about how committed he was to shoot down a Russian plane in a no-fly zone in Syria. Paul's response, "Well, I think if you're in favor of World War III, you have your candidate."
The policies espoused in tonight's debate were far from perfect. But it is significant that three candidates, including even the two frontrunners Cruz and Trump, appear to be aware that regime change can backfire and are willing to say that publicly. Somehow, the Republicans have gotten to a point where they are having a genuine debate on foreign policy. And if you support peace, this is a very positive development.