The early primary debates are great entertainment. With a sprinkling of Trump, we look for the candidates to come off script. We look for animosity — both personal and political — that distinguishes the candidates from one another. We look for charisma and moments of inspiration. But, ultimately, we’re looking for entertainment. Still, we must remember that presidential primary debates exist for more than our amusement. Illuminating a candidate’s character and variable responses to pressure, debates inform America’s democratic choices.
Debates also matter for U.S. national security: Foreign-government officials are watching the debates, too. Working through diplomats, spies, and analysts, they are assessing who might win the GOP nomination and what that victory might mean for U.S. foreign policy come 2017. In turn, as President Obama’s term winds down, foreign governments will increasingly make policy in consideration of his likely successor.
And that means that Republican presidential candidates need to be confident on foreign-policy issues. Last week’s debate proved why this is easier said than done. After all, two candidates dominated the foreign-policy proceedings at the CNN debate: Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio. Unfortunately, only one prospective president was up to speed.
Watch the video:
Both responses met applause, but consider the substantive differences between Rubio and Fiorina.
Rubio outlined Putin’s strategic aims in Syria: protecting Bashar al-Assad but also displacing America’s relationships with its traditional allies. And he was correct to do so. President Obama’s Middle Eastern policy is like a kite flailing in the wind. Putin knows he has the credibility to usurp America’s position as the regional power broker. Some White House supporters say this doesn’t matter — that the U.S. should encourage Putin to take ownership of Middle Eastern chaos. But the absolute opposite is true. For reasons of regional stability, human rights, and crucial American security, America must retain its central role in the Middle East.
#share#In contrast to Rubio, Fiorina offered tactics rather than strategic analysis. The former HP CEO said she would end contact with Putin, send more troops to Germany, and strengthen the U.S. Navy’s carrier presence in Europe. It all sounds good, but in overall strategic terms these proposals are paper thin. First, ignoring the Russians — and offending their pride — is unwise. Russia respects strength, but it also responds to respect. Second, if the U.S. is to deter Russia while also encouraging the EU to spend more on defense, sending more personnel to Germany won’t help. Third, sending large U.S. carrier strike groups into the Mediterranean isn’t necessarily a great idea; sending attack submarines is a better alternative. That said, Fiorina’s most problematic suggestion was that Putin’s Syria strategy has been designed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards general, Qassem Soleimani. This is simply untrue. Soleimani’s outreach to Moscow is well documented, but Putin is in Syria because it advances Russia’s interests, not because Iran sent him. Putin plays the leading role in this partnership. After all, Syria has been a Russian ally since it became a Soviet client state in the early 1970s.
#related#Even at this early point in the campaign, candidates need to grasp tough foreign-policy issues. Presidential debates help in sorting out who is up to the task. Fiorina and Rubio are front-runners to become the next president of the United States. Both are driven, eloquent, and intelligent. But to build credibility with future foreign allies and foes, these candidates must avoid platitudes. Instead, they must lay out an overarching U.S. strategy. We’ve seen where platitudes — Obama’s infamous and disappearing “red lines” — get us. They have eviscerated America’s credibility around the world. Republicans must avoid making the same mistake.