Republican presidential candidates on Thursday jumped right on President Obama over foreign policy, spending much of the first debate of the new year flunking Obama — and by extension, his former secretary of state Hillary Clinton — saying they had underestimated overseas threats and had made the country less safe.
Candidates beginning with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz were quick to point out that as Obama delivered his State of the Union address Tuesday, 10 U.S. Navy sailors were being held overnight in the Persian Gulf, their U.S. Navy boats seized by Iranian military forces. Deflecting a question about the economy, Cruz took Obama to task for failing to mention the crisis during his speech. Obama did not touch on the matter, though he touted the administration’s nuclear accord with Iran.
Obama delivered the final State of the Union address of his presidency on Tuesday, defending his record on fighting terrorism and his prosecution of ISIS in Syria via an air war, but declaring that the U.S. needs to “set priorities.” Obama called keeping Americans safe “priority number one.”
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The sailors were held overnight Tuesday on Iran’s Farsi Island and then released on Wednesday. Footage broadcast on Iranian state television on Wednesday showed the sailors surrendering on the deck of their ships, kneeling with their hands placed on their heads. Other footage showed the sailors seated on the floor inside a room, where they were served a meal.
Cruz called the images “heartbreaking,” and declared that countries capturing U.S. service members “will feel the full force and fury of the United States.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also cited the incident as evidence that Obama had failed in his handling of foreign policy.
“On Tuesday night, I watched story time with Barack Obama,” Christie said, adding, “I gotta tell you, it sounded like everything in the world was going amazing, you know?”
Christie later complained that under Obama, “tin pot dictators like the mullahs in Iran are taking our Navy ships.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio declared that Obama does not appreciate the threat of ISIS, and promised to hunt and destroy the militants. Rubio’s vow also included a knock on the president’s pledge to shut down the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay.
“If we capture any of them alive,” Rubio said, “they are getting a way one-way ticket to Guantanamo Bay Cuba, and we are going to find out everything they know.”
Obama, who has vowed to shut down Guantanamo since he ran for the White House, pledged once again on Tuesday to shutter the prison, calling it a “recruitment brochure” for terrorist groups. The president also said Tuesday that the notion the country has been weakened under his command is “political hot air.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush disputed the president's take. Citing the ongoing war in Syria and the rise of ISIS, Bush said the world had been “torn asunder” under Obama. “For the life of me,” he said, “I have no understanding why the president thinks that everything is going well.”
Candidates also seized on recent terror attacks across the world to bolster their own campaign planks — and to defend themselves against attacks from each other.
Trump, for instance, looked to Thursday morning’s terrorist attacks in Jakarta as evidence that his proposal to stop Muslim immigration to the United States is justified. “Indonesia, bomb, bomb, bomb,” Trump said. “We have to find out what’s going on.” ISIS has claimed responsibility for a wave of attacks in Indonesia’s capital city Thursday, which killed at least seven people.
And Rubio, who is facing criticism for his past support for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, warned that ISIS is “manipulating our immigration system” in order to sneak attackers inside the U.S., citing as an example the woman involved in December’s attack in San Bernardino, California.
But, on complex issues regarding the Middle East, at least two candidates sounded more like the president and former secretary of state than they might have liked to admit.
Chris Christie called for a no-fly zone in Syria, a position that Hillary Clinton has also endorsed, though Obama has not. The New Jersey governor also said that Syria’s nearly five year civil war cannot end without Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad leaving power. Clinton, for her part, has made similar remarks, saying in the last Democratic debate that opposition fighters won’t support the U.S. effort against ISIS if they don’t believe Assad will eventually go.
And Ohio Gov. John Kasich called Thursday for a balanced diplomatic approach toward U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, where that country’s execution earlier this month of a prominent Shia cleric set off new tension with Iran.
Kasich’s call for restraint echoed Obama’s call Tuesday for a “wise application of military power.”
“In foreign policy, it’s strength, but you got to be cool,” Kasich said.