LAS VEGAS — If one of the goals of ISIS is to scare the American people, the GOP did them a service on Tuesday night—ratcheting up the fearful rhetoric, and combining it with ideas that were at times ignorant or illegal.
From carpet bombings that would kill scores of civilians to Muslim blockades to Internet bans, the Republican debate sent a message to American viewers: Be afraid.
It plays right into ISIS’s hands: As a terrorist organization that is outmatched in brute strength by the United States, one of its most potent tools is psychological. It can use fear to provoke an overreaction. And boy, did the Republicans overreact.
Forget that an American is more likely to be fatally crushed by furniture than killed in a terrorist attack. Cue instead Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, talking about nuclear weapons: “The power, the devastation, is very important to me,” Trump said.
Absent is the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan, a president many of the GOP candidates have quoted and idolized. Gone is the they’ll-hear-from-us resolve that George W. Bush showed after the 9/11 attacks. Instead, we heard from Carly Fiorina, saying, “Like all of you, I’m angry.”
Chris Christie added, “America has been betrayed.”
This wasn’t unexpected. Given the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, the country —particularly the Republican electorate—is on high alert.
But it wasn’t only dark rhetoric: The Republican debate featured proposals that can only be considered dangerous or stupid. Like he’s doing in the polls, Trump led the field on this account, proposing that the United States try to ban ISIS from using the Internet.
“We should be using our brilliant people, our most brilliant minds to figure a way that ISIS cannot use the Internet,” the businessman said.
Trump didn’t suggest any actual way to accomplish this, and given that the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS is backed by an ideology that can be taken up by individuals all throughout the world—individuals who cannot be easily identified or constrained to a particular region—the proposal is a non-starter.
The businessman was not only proposing nonsensical ideas, but also ones that violate American commitment regarding humane treatment of civilians. Trump again supported violence against the families of terrorists, which goes against the well-established principles of international law.
“I would be very, very firm with families,” Trump said. “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.”
He was called out by Rand Paul, who pointed out that his policies would throw out years of precedent—not to mention involve withdrawing from a key international treaty.
But Trump was not alone in a willingness to accept the deaths of innocent civilians and potentially commit war crimes. When asked by conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt whether he would be “OK with the deaths of thousands of innocent children and civilians,” Ben Carson responded: “You got it. You got it.”
And Sen. Ted Cruz has said he wants to “carpet-bomb” ISIS, which would essentially require blanketing urban, ISIS-held areas like Raqqa with munitions. Since ISIS hides among civilian populations, such actions would almost certainly kill scores of non-combatants, and could be considered a war crime if it could be shown that the U.S. was intentionally attacking civilians. The very nature of carpet-bombing is that it is imprecise, destroying entire areas without discrimination.
Other Republicans were merely wrong. Businesswoman Carly Fiorina said that she would “bring back the warrior class,” listing off retired generals like David Petraeus that she would consult as president. “Every one was retired early because they told President Obama things that he didn’t want to hear,” she said.
Eh, not quite. Petraeus was forced to retire as director of the CIA for allegedly giving classified documents to his biographer, with whom he was having an affair.
It was a night full of spats, but two face-offs dominated the debate: Jeb Bush’s attacks on Donald Trump, and contenders Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio going head-to-head over national security and immigration.
Senators Cruz and Rubio, who have both been rising in the polls, argued substantively on the core issues of the debate: how big the military budget should be, how much the NSA should be allowed to do, and what to do with the undocumented immigrants already in the United States.
“Three times he voted against the Defense Authorization Act, which is a bill that funds the troops,” Rubio said of Cruz. “He has also supported, by the way, a budget that is called the containment budget. And it is a budget that would radically reduce the amount of money we spend on our military. You can’t carpet-bomb ISIS if you don’t have planes and bombs to attack them with.”
“I voted against the National Defense Authorization Act because when I campaigned in Texas I told voters in Texas that I would oppose the federal government having the authority to detain U.S. citizens permanently with no due process,” Cruz responded. “Let’s be absolutely clear. ISIS and radical Islamic terrorism will face no more determined foe than I will be.”
Bush showed life, executing his strongest debate performance, in which he condemned Trump as a “chaos candidate” who would become a “chaos president” (a putdown that quickly morphed into a Jeb! fundraising site). He seemed unfazed by Trump’s rebuttal—that Bush was doing poorly in the polls. In fact, Bush retorted, “Donald, you’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency. That’s not going to happen.”
Christie also seemed to be back to his pre-Bridgegate self and was more than ready to jump into the fray, at one point calling President Obama a “feckless weakling.”
But at least one much-hyped “cage match” didn’t happen.
Cruz and Trump basically steered clear of each other, save a few verbal—almost real—hugs. At one point, as CNN went to a commercial break, the two could be seen shaking hands.
CNN’s Dana Bash baited Trump and Cruz to fight, asking about comments Cruz made during a closed-door fundraiser about Trump’s temperament. Upon hearing the comments last weekend, Trump responded by calling Cruz a “maniac.”
But by Tuesday, apparently, all was forgiven.
“He has a wonderful temperament, he’s just fine,” Trump said, noting that he and Cruz had a chance to talk over the past few days. “Don’t worry about it.”
Bash responded, “Okay...”