CLEVELAND – Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush got a second chance on Thursday to explain why he wouldn't have gone down the path that led his brother to war in Iraq. But during the first GOP primary debate, he sought to place the blame for Iraq's failure on President Obama, claiming that Islamic militants took over "because of the void" created by departing U.S. troops.
Knowing today that the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction was wrong, Bush said he would not have sent troops into Iraq. But, he went on, "Barack Obama became president and he abandoned Iraq."
The former Florida governor is the third in his family to seek the nation's highest office, and he has struggled to differentiate himself from former president George W. Bush, who left the White House after two wars and with low approval ratings. Their father, former President George H. W. Bush, failed to win re-election to a second term.
But Donald Trump, the billionaire front-runner who stood to Bush's right on the debate stage here, wouldn't let go of the family ties.
"The last number of months of his brother’s administration were a catastrophe. And unfortunately those few months gave us President Obama, and you can’t be happy about that," Trump said.
From the nuclear deal with Iran, to cyber threats, trade and Israel, terrorism and the NSA, foreign policy and national security were prominent themes of the debate with candidates often competing to appear most hawkish.
Calling himself "a different kind of Republican," Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky bucked conservative territory in several areas.
Paul said he would vote against the Iran deal, but he praised negotiations that led to the agreement. He said he would end U.S. foreign aid to Israel because it would be better off independent of the money. And he pushed his message of privacy over government intrusion when it comes to the National Security Agency.
That stance led to an onstage spat with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who portrayed himself as tough on terrorism. Sounding like former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani, who campaigned on his leadership in the aftermath of the Sept, 11, 2001 attacks, Christie repeatedly referenced the attacks, saying he spent his years as a U.S. Attorney in his state fighting terrorists and comforting their victims.
During an earlier candidate forum, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham focused his message on the Middle East, saying he would deploy American troops to Syria and Iraq if he were to become president.
Channeling the former Bush administration, whose foreign policy the senator often disagreed with, Graham said “we need a ground force in Iraq and Syria, and America has to be part of that ground force.”
Boots on the ground were necessary, he said, to prevent America’s foes from reaching the nation’s shores. “If we don’t stop them over there, they are coming here just as sure as I stand here in front of you,” Graham said.
At the early bird debate round, foreign policy and national security dominated much of the 90-minute forum with seven low-polling candidates roundly condemning Obama’s nascent nuclear deal with Iran, and panning the president’s approach to Islamic militants now ascendant in Syria and parts of Iraq.
Each candidate in the early round was asked about Democratic front-runner and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but there was almost no mention of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina was the only candidate to mention it specifically, saying that Clinton “lies about Benghazi.” The Republican Congress has been focusing a special investigation of the attack that left four Americans dead on Clinton and the State Department under her leadership at the time.
Former New York Gov. George Pataki sought to distance himself from Graham, and noted that his two sons had served in the military – one in Iraq and the other in Afghanistan.
“I don’t agree that we’re going to occupy and spend another decade or a trillion dollars,” Pataki said. “What we need to do is destroy their ability to attack us here over there, and then get out.”
But it was the views of Graham, Fiorina and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore that caught the most attention.
For Gilmore, it was for what seemed like a limited understanding of both the complexities of the Middle East and for a weak command of the threat posed by Islamist militants who are often referred to as ISIL or ISIS.
Gilmore suggested creating a military alliance among Sunnis, Shias and their governments – who are often in conflict with one another – to fight both Iran and the Islamists simultaneously.
“I have proposed there be a Middle East NATO so that we can combine our allies there to stand up to Iranian expansion, and at the same time join together to begin to stop this ISIL thing before it becomes an actual state.”
Fiorina portrayed herself, as she has on the campaign trail, as personally acquainted with world leaders, and she was the only one to name-check both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jordan’s King Abdullah.
Like her fellow candidates, Fiorina lambasted a nuclear deal struck with Iran. She also spoke as a former tech insider but starkly at odds with the trend in the industry led by Apple and Google to refuse government demands for access to encrypted user data.
“China and Russia are using technology to attack us, just as ISIS is using technology to recruit those who would murder American citizens,” she said. “I do not believe that we need to wholesale destroy every American citizen’s privacy in order to go after those that we know are suspect or are – are already a problem. But yes, there is more collaboration required between private sector companies and the public sector,” Fiorina said.