Carpet-bombing with no regard for civilian casualties. Murdering the possibly-innocent families of terrorists just to make a point. The line between official U.S. policy and action movie fantasy was unfortunately blurred during the Republican debate on Tuesday night, when Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the frontrunners for the nomination—Trump with 33 percent in the polls, Cruz with 16—tried to out-macho one another on foreign policy.
The result was both candidates doubling down on strategies that involve war crimes.
Cruz has often said that he wants to “carpet-bomb ISIS into oblivion,” joking that we’ll find out if “sand can glow in the dark” in the process.
Asked by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “Does that mean leveling the ISIS capital of Raqqa in Syria, where there are hundreds of thousands of civilians?”
Cruz replied, “What it means is using overwhelming airpower to utterly and completely destroy ISIS.”
By way of example, he pointed to the first Gulf War, when “we carpet-bombed them for 37 days, saturation bombing, after which our troops went in and in a day and a half, mopped up what was left of the Iraqi army.”
The architects of that Gulf War effort, which featured the first major use of precision-guided bombs, would probably disagree that it was was “saturation” or “carpet” bombing. And according to the International Criminal Court, war crimes include “intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population.” Cruz said the objective would be to kill members of ISIS, not civilians, but there’s no such thing as a precise, narrowly targeted carpet-bombing campaign. The tactic, which began in the Spanish Civil War and flowered fully in World War II, is to drop thousands of munitions on a single area—and flatten in. It is the opposite of precise.
Not long after Cruz’s exchange, Trump was asked a question by Josh Jacob, an earnest, yellow sweater vest-wearing student from Georgia Tech. He wanted to know how Trump justified his assertion that the U.S. should kill the families of terrorists, when that “violates the principle of distinction between combatants and family members.”
He asked, “How would intentionally killing innocent civilians set us apart from ISIS?”
Trump puffed up like a blowfish. “We have to be much tougher and stronger than we’ve been,” he said. He pointed to the San Bernardino attack, arguing that people who knew the terrorist husband and wife no doubt were aware that they were up to no good. “They knew exactly what was going on,” he said.
“When you had the World Trade Center go, people were put into planes that were friends, family, girlfriends, and they were put into planes and they were sent back, for the most part, to Saudi Arabia,” Trump said. “They knew what was going on. They went home and wanted to watch their boyfriends on television.”
To Trump, there is no possibility that the families, friends or loved ones of terrorists could be disconnected from terrorism, and so, “I would be very, very firm with families. And, 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.”
Earlier this month, Trump was even bolder. “When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” he said on Fox & Friends. “You have to take out their families.”
Inconveniently enough for Trump, murder is also classified as a war crime.
But that may not matter to the audience at the debate.
Advocating for breaking international humanitarian laws almost looked reasonable next to Trump’s North Korea-influenced proposal to “close” parts of the Internet frequented by terrorists. (As if the U.S. doesn’t gather all sorts of intelligence from those corners of the digital world.)
And applause predictably broke out when Hillary et al. were criticized for failing to decry “Islamic terror.”
Other ideas, like Rand Paul’s meek suggestion that America might perhaps consider the Bill of Rights from time to time, hardly received any notice.