First Republican debate: All bark and no bite

The US Republican Party presidential candidates stake out hawkish views on policy towards the Middle East.

Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Scott Walker, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, John Kasich
On Iran, there was unanimity among the candidates in opposing not only the nuclear deal but also Iran itself, writes Aftandilian [AP]

Although the August 6 debate among the 10 leading Republican presidential candidates dealt mostly with domestic policies and immigration, it revealed that most of them shared hawkish views on foreign and security policies in the Middle East.

Only Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a libertarian, has been outspoken in the past against US intervention overseas, but he largely confined his remarks in the debate to the controversy over domestic surveillance programmes and making confusing remarks about the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

All of the candidates opposed the Iran nuclear deal without specifying a realistic alternative.

The questioners did their best to try to stir up controversy by putting the candidates in the hot seat.

One such question was directed at Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida and brother of former President George W Bush.

When asked about his position on the Iraq war of 2003 (a question he fumbled several times earlier in the year), Bush said: “Knowing what we know now, with faulty intelligence, and not having security be the first priority when – when we invaded, it was a mistake.”

But Bush then proceeded to criticise President Barack Obama for having “abandoned Iraq”, adding later that the US needs to take on ISIL “with everything we have”.

No military solution

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, one the most right-wing of the candidates, was asked about his comment in a Senate hearing in which he criticised a US military leader’s statement that there was no military solution to the ISIL problem because the problem was essentially ideological as “nonsense”.

Cruz responded by saying the US needs a strong commander-in-chief who will actually utter the words that the threat comes from “radical Islamic terrorism” – which must be defeated militarily.

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But when the questioner pressed Cruz on whether the struggle was indeed ideological, Cruz appeared to reverse himself by saying there was an ideological dimension to the ISIL threat.

He then praised Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for calling on Islamic religious leaders to condemn the terrorists’ message.

Another right-wing candidate, Governor Scott Walker from Wisconsin, when asked about which countries should help the US against ISIL, said the United States needed to work closely with its allies in the region, like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

He added that during a recent trip to the region, the main worry among Gulf Arabs was US “disengagement”.

Unintended consequences

Paul tried to show that intervention can have unintended consequences by stating that ISIL had captured billions of dollars of US military equipment, but then made a confusing statement that the US should not be funding ISIL’s allies, without specifying to which countries he was referring.

With the exception of Paul, most of the candidates believed that the US should do more militarily against ISIL, and work more closely with US friends in the region, though they were short on specifics.

On Iran, there was unanimity among the candidates in opposing not only the nuclear deal but also Iran itself.

Walker said he would “tear up” the deal and put Iran under “more sanctions”.

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Former Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas said Obama’s strategy was “trust and vilify” – meaning trust the Iranians and vilify the opponents of the deal in the US.

He went to say that Iran was becoming a “burgeoning” nuclear weapons power and that the US “got nothing” in the nuclear deal.

Cruz, not wanting to cede any ground to his rivals, said the US was “leading from behind”, and denounced the decision of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards “Quds” force leader for travelling to Russia in defiance of the sanctions, and the US for not doing anything about it.

Trying to connect himself to the legacy of former US President Ronald Reagan, Cruz noted that Iran only released the American hostages a few minutes after Reagan took the oath of office in 1981, implying that Iran only respects a forceful leader.

Wanted: ‘Strong’ leader

Businessman Donald Trump denounced Obama’s foreign policy, including the Iran nuclear deal, as a “disgrace”.

None of the candidates, however, addressed the issue of the consequences of pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal if elected president.

Overall, with the exception of Paul, there was not much difference in the foreign policy positions of the Republican candidates.


If the US were to impose new sanctions on Iran, would the rest of the P5+1 countries follow suit? That is highly doubtful, but the candidates avoided the issue.

Several of the candidates suggested that the problems of the Iran nuclear deal were related to Obama’s plan to shrink the US military and for being perceived as “weak” overseas.

Huckabee claimed that Obama had “decimated” the military, while Trump harped on the issue that no one respected the US any more, and called American leaders “stupid”.

Even Paul, climbing aboard the bandwagon, said that Obama did not negotiate the Iran deal “from a position of strength”.

The Republican candidates suggested that a stronger US leader and a stronger US military would have led to a much better deal with Iran. But short of war, would the Iranians have really capitulated in the negotiations as these candidates wanted?

Stronger US leadership 

And if the next US president launches a war against Iran, would the American public support it? Again, the Republican candidates avoided these issues.

On Israel, Paul was put in the hot seat for having stated several years ago that he favoured eliminating US aid to that country.

Knowing that most Republican voters are strong supporters of Israel, especially the Christian fundamentalist wing of the party, Paul finessed the issue by saying that his motivation then was to balance the budget. 

He then changed the subject to say the US should not borrow from China to finance foreign aid and went on to call Israel a “great ally”.

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Seeing an opportunity, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey chimed in by saying supporting Israel “is a priority”, while Cruz, in his closing statement, threw in the line (which candidates from both parties often use during election campaigns) that the US embassy in Israel should be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Overall, with the exception of Paul, there was not much difference in the foreign policy positions of the Republican candidates.

They indicted they wanted the US to do more militarily against ISIL, scuttle the Iran nuclear deal, and beef up the US military, perhaps with the aim of threatening Iran.

While it is difficult to predict how any of these candidates will actually govern, it appears that most of them would be more willing to use military force than Obama and keep Iran boxed in.

Gregory Aftandilian is a former Middle East analyst at the US State Department and a former staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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