To repeal or not to repeal: 10 notes about the GOP debate

September 17, 2015

If you want winners and losers, a full transcript and a general analysis of the state of the race – this isn’t it. I only want to write about the second GOP Presidential debate as it relates to Israel and the Middle East.


If Israel hopes (and some in Israel’s government do hope) that a Republican President elected in 2016 will cancel the Iran deal – it should recalibrate its hopes. Some of the main candidates would not commit to doing such a thing. Obviously, Senator Rand Paul would not commit to doing such a thing – “Should we cut up the agreement immediately? That's absurd,” he said – but no one expected Paul to say anything else. So the significant statements are those by Bush and Kasich. Bush said: “it's not a strategy to tear up an agreement.” Governor Kasich said on Iran: “if they cheat, we slap the sanctions back on. If they help Hamas, and Hezbollah, we slap the sanctions back on. And, if we find out that they may be developing a nuclear weapon, than the military option is on the table. We are stronger when we work with the Western civilization, our friends in Europe, and just doing it on our own I don't think is the right policy.” But he also said: “we don't know what's going to happen in 18 months.” Namely, I would not commit to cancelling the agreement, which is a “bad agreement” – Kashich’s words.


This debate about the right way to treat the agreement is going to continue. And it is going to be somewhat similar to other debates such as the one about the right way to treat Obamacare. To a large extent, the same people who want to “repeal” this also want to “repeal” that. Governor Huckabee is certainly one who believes in tearing up past decisions of President Obama: “we must, simply, make it very clear that the next president, one of us on this stage, will absolutely not honor that agreement, and will destroy it and will be tough with Iran, because otherwise, we put every person in this world in a very dangerous place.”


What is Bush’s strategy for battling Iran? His answer was interesting: “the first thing that we need to do is to establish our commitment to Israel which has been altered by this administration. And, make sure that they have the most sophisticated weapons to send a signal to Iran that we have Israel's back.” Of course, it is good to have sophisticated weapons. On the other hand, it might give the impression that Bush considers Iran to be a problem that is mainly Israel’s – and considers America’s interest to be limited to the fact that Israel is America’s ally. Looking at statements that are coming out of the Obama administration, that is a position not necessarily much different from the one of the current President, who also wants to keep the agreement and give Israel more sophisticated weapons to send a signal that he has Israel’s back (to be fair to Bush, he could still say that he wouldn’t have signed an agreement with Iran – but this doesn’t change the possibility that, pragmatically speaking, Bush’s policy isn’t going to be much different from Obama’s).


Senator Cruz insisted on prolonging the debate about Iran by saying: “there is no more important topic in 2016 than this topic right here.” I wonder if he is right – if 18 months from now the issue of Iran is going to be front and center. I suspect it will not. There is a good chance that looking back at the debate yesterday it will look awkward that the folks on stage wanted to talk about Iran and Syria at such length, while the American voter is interested in quite different things.


Here is something on which all candidates seemed to be in agreement: “we have a president that is more respectful to the ayatollah in Iran than he is to the prime minister of Israel.” Senator Rubio said it. The crowd applauded it.


Only one candidate made the pledge that was made – and broken – so many times in the past: “the American embassy in Israel will be in Jerusalem,” promised Senator Cruz. That is, in the unlikely case that Cruz is President. Don’t hold your breath in anticipation.


The foreign leader that was mentioned in the debate more than all others was Vladimir Putin. His bold moves all around the globe, and the current case is Syria, make him a leader with which to contend. Here, again, we see the GOP split between two camps. The ‘let us engage’ camp, led by Donald Trump (because he will get along with him, possibly by looking into his eyes the way George W. Bush did), and the ‘we should not talk to him’ camp, represented by Rubio, Fiorina and others. Here again, the debate is not new: previous administrations and political camps have fought time and again about the merit of engagement with rivals and enemies. President Obama is engager in chief, and you’d expect that some of his rivals would want to recalibrate the level of US engagement with bullies. But as we could see during the debate, some rivals believe that Obama was actually right in arguing that boycott and disengagement is not a good policy. They believe that Obama was on to something, and they believe that the American public, on this issue, is on the side of the President (and, in fact, it is).


It was interesting to witness the delicate lingual dance with which the candidates tried to A. not tie themselves to unpopular wars such as Iraq and B. still argue forcefully for engagement with the world beyond the US, including by force. Dr. Carson did it by suggesting the following: “I just want to mention that when the war, when the issue occurred in 2003, I suggested to President Bush that he not go to war? OK. So I just want that on the record. And, you know, a lot of people are very much against us getting involved right now with global jihadism. And they refer back to our invasion of Iraq. And they seem to think that that was what caused it. What caused it was withdrawing from there and creating a vacuum which allowed this terrible situation to occur. But it is very different from what is going on today. We're talking about global jihadists who actually want to destroy us.”

Let’s parse his words:

– He was against the Iraq war, and he wants that on the record (no one who wants to get elected is going to say that the Iraq war was a great strategic move).

– But the mess we see today is not because of the Iraq war – it is because of the Obama “vacuum” (in the Republican Party, one has to be careful not to blame Bush for the ME mess).

– Intervention today is not like intervention in Iraq, because, unlike Iraq, “global jihadists” want “to destroy us”.


The debate proved, not for the first time, that a smaller yet more visually engaging threat is easier to communicate than a bigger yet more vague threat. That is to say: Iran is threatening, but the nature of the threat is somewhat vague. ISIS is dangerous, and this can be proved using YouTube. Hence, it is relatively easier for Republican leaders to go as far as suggesting “boots on the ground” (Kasich) – the most vivid call for military action – against ISIS. Look at the same candidate speaking about Iran getting closer to having a nuclear weapon: “if we think they're getting close to a — to developing a nuclear weapon and we get that information, you better believe that I would do everything in my power as the commander-in-chief to stop them having a nuclear weapon.”

“Boots on the ground” is much stronger than “everything in my power.”


So what’s the overall message, what’s the overall promise? A turn from softly engaging the world in an attempt to restore American moral prestige – the mantra of the Obama era – to aggressively projecting power in the world – the mantra of the era of the next Republican President, in case there is one.

To most Republican candidates it is quite clear which of the two is more effective if one wants to have an impact in the Middle East. And if it’s not clear, they can always ask Vladimir Putin for his view.

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