Republican presidential candidates in their January 14 debate tried to outdo each other in portraying the US President Barack Obama as weak on defence and woefully ineffectual against ISIL, but they offered little in the way of an alternative strategy except to advocate for a substantial United States military build-up.

With Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky - a lonely voice within the Republican party calling for less US military engagement overseas - not included in the prime debate because of low poll numbers, the evening was essentially a debate among hawks.

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Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, now running second to businessman Donald Trump, used the opening question to launch into a tirade against Obama for his Iran policy, saying the "heartbreaking" image of US sailors on their knees (after being captured by the Iranians) would not occur if he were president because Iran would feel the "full fury" of the US in such a case.

US public's fears

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush called for rebuilding the US military, strengthening alliances, and making sure US enemies "fear us".

Trying to tie Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton to Obama, Bush even went so far as saying Clinton was a "national security mess", while Senator Marco Rubio charged that Clinton was "disqualified" for the job of commander-in-chief because of her "lies" to the families of Americans killed in Benghazi and her mishandling of classified material.


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Playing to the US public's fears, nearly all of the Republican candidates hyped up the threat from ISIL and said that Obama was not taking this terrorist group seriously. They denigrated Obama's State of the Union speech, given two days earlier, in which he tried to put the ISIL threat into some perspective.

Nearly all of the Republican candidates hyped up the threat from ISIL and said that Obama was not taking this terrorist group seriously.

 

Former neurosurgeon Ben Carson called ISIL "an existential threat" and said that he worried about a scenario where a group such as ISIL attacks the US power grid, engages in a major cyber attack, and unleashes a dirty bomb.

But when asked by one of the questioners whether they supported the position of former presidential candidate, Senator Lindsey Graham, who has called for the deployment of 20,000 US troops into Syria and Iraq to fight ISIL, all of the Republican candidates dodged the question.

US combat troops

Christie and Bush said that they would support a no-fly zone in Syria, and Christie said that the US should support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's departure because that would help draw more Arab allies into the fight against ISIL, but they, like the other candidates, skirted the issue of putting US combat boots on the ground.

Although recent polling has shown that at least half of all Americans now support the deployment of some US combat troops in the Levant to fight ISIL, a similar percentage is concerned about getting bogged down in a quagmire.

Still, because Obama's poll numbers on terrorism have dropped, the Republican candidates did their best to tie domestic issues - like gun control - to this perceived threat.

Republican Presidential hopeful Donald Trump [EPA]

Rubio, for example, said Obama's inclination to take guns away from US citizens would hurt the effort against ISIL because "the last line of defence against ISIL is us".

And Trump said that the death toll from the Paris and San Bernardino attacks would have been much less if people in those cities were armed, invoking a kind of shoot-out at the OK Corral.

The one area where there was a major difference between the candidates on national security was Trump's earlier comment to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the United States, a comment that he repeated in the debate.

'Rash statements'

Bush went after him again on this issue, saying that it proves that Trump is "unhinged". Bush added that sending such a signal makes it impossible to build support against ISIL among Muslim allies, and said a serious presidential contender should not make "rash statements".


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Bush called on Trump to reconsider his statement, but the latter only responded with: "I want security." Trump added that "there's something going on that's bad", when no one who knew the San Bernardino killers reported to the authorities they had pipe bombs in their home for some time.

Although Ohio Governor John Kasich said it was wrong to paint an entire group with a broad brush and talked about the need for an alliance with the Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians and others, he called for "a pause" in admitting Syrian refugees into the US, a position that the other candidates also supported.

Cruz, for example, said that he has sponsored a bill that would ban all refugees from countries that ISIL controls.

The Republican candidates' strategies are clearly to play on the US public's fears and to paint a picture of a United States that is in decline. Whether this is a winning strategy in the general election, however, is far from certain.

Gregory Aftandilian is an adjunct professor of foreign policy at American University in Washington, DC, and is a former State Department Middle East analyst.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera