GOP Debate: Candidates Fight Over Who is the Toughest

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In Tuesday night’s Republican debate, the candidates focused most of their attention on foreign policy, specifically what needs to be done to protect the American people. While the candidates ended up agreeing on many ideas, the clearest sense of unity on the stage was behind the notion that the United States needs to be tougher. We need to have a tougher immigration policy, we need to move away from the “feckless weakling president” in the oval office, and most importantly we need to be “tough” on ISIS.

Senator Ted Cruz started off by upping the standards for toughness. When asked about his previous call to “carpet bomb” ISIS, Cruz doubled down. He referenced the first Persian Gulf War, noting that the United States conducted around 1,100 airstrikes a day. But when Wolf Blitzer, the debate’s moderator, pressed Cruz on how that would affect civilians, he gave a rather bizarre response:

You would carpet bomb where ISIS is, not a city, but the location of the troops. You use air power directed — and you have embedded special forces to direction the air power. But the object isn’t to level a city. The object is to kill the ISIS terrorists.

Now on its face, that might sound like a sensible policy; few people would argue against a decisive bombing campaign that only killed terrorists. But that’s simply not the reality on the ground. There isn’t a huge group of ISIS soldiers standing around in the middle of the desert. They are deeply embedded in civilian populations, primarily in cities where indiscriminate bombing campaigns would kill massive amounts of civilians.

Cruz faced questions like that before, yet he has maintained his view that his policy wouldn’t kill civilians. In a recent interview with NPR, Cruz even noted that “no reasonable military endeavor targets civilians.” But looking at the reality in Iraq and Syria, what Cruz is calling for would have a massive civilian casualty toll. There are only a few conclusions available here–Cruz is either fine with more civilian deaths than he is letting on, doesn’t actually realize how ISIS is operating, or is intentionally misleading people–all three seem troubling.

Not to mention that carpet bombing, a term Cruz has repeatedly used when talking about ISIS, hasn’t been used since the Vietnam war. As Politifact points out, the main tenet of carpet bombing is that it is indiscriminate and not targeted. Even in the Gulf War, which Cruz regularly cites as an example, the military used targeted bombs. Moreover, the practice of carpet bombing may also violate the 1977 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Convention. What is true about carpet bombing? It sounds tough.

To be sure, the current U.S.-led bombing campaign has caused a large number of civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria despite taking some precautions. While that is, by itself, worthy of debate, the debate on Tuesday night changed the way foreign policy is discussed in the Republican campaign. It seems as if the proposed policies are no longer about helping solve an already impossibly complicated situation, rather they are simply a way to display America’s, and by extension the candidate’s, toughness.

So what exactly does this toughness entail? Toughness, while often vague and said without further explanation, means being willing to act regardless of the consequences. That concept was even baked into the questions given to the candidates. Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt questioned whether being a kind, evangelical neurosurgeon would prevent Ben Carson from doing what ‘needs to be done.’ Hewitt asked,

We’re talking about ruthless things tonight — carpet bombing, toughness, war… Could you order air strikes that would kill innocent children by not the scores, but the hundreds and the thousands? Could you wage war as a commander-in-chief?

In response, Carson reflected on the tough decisions he had to make as a surgeon, noting the firmness with which he dealt with his patients. “You have to be able to look at the big picture and understand that it’s actually merciful if you go ahead and finish the job, rather than death by 1,000 pricks,” he said. But what he was saying did become clear until his next exchange with Hewitt:

Hewitt: So you are OK with the deaths of thousands of innocent children and civilian? [The crowd boos]

Carson: You got it.

Carson was not alone in his disregard for civilian casualties. The sentiment was largely popularized by the Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, who recently said that the United States should go after terrorists’ families. My colleague Anneliese Mahoney has already noted that Trump is, quite plainly, advocating for war crimes, but he pressed on in Tuesday night’s debate. He said, “I would be very, very firm with families. Frankly, that will make people think because they may not care much about their lives, but they do care, believe it or not, about their families’ lives.” Trump later asked, “So, they can kill us, but we can’t kill them?” He was seemingly arguing that the U.S. response should play at the same level as the Islamic State.

By the end of the night, only Rand Paul managed to create a compelling contrast to his competitors:

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?

Paul’s questions, and the extent to which we are okay killing civilians, are worth further consideration from the candidates and voters alike.

Kevin Rizzo
Kevin Rizzo is the Crime in America Editor at Law Street Media. An Ohio Native, the George Washington University graduate is a founding member of the company. Contact Kevin at krizzo@LawStreetMedia.com.



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