Republican presidential candidates revealed just how far the Republican Party has moved in the decade since President George W. Bush called for spreading democratic principles through the Middle East, sometimes by force. Much of Tuesday’s debate focused on the role the U.S. has played in toppling them in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq and Libya—and trying to force out Bashar Assad in Syria—since the terror attacks of 9/11. The certainty that most dictators are bad, not just for their people but for American interests, was no longer a given for Republican candidates, as the U.S. struggles with militants exploiting the vacuums left behind by toppled authoritarian states.
“If you believe in regime change, you’re mistaken,” Kentucky Senator Rand Paul said during the Las Vegas debate.
“We keep hearing from President Obama and Hillary Clinton and Washington Republicans that they’re searching for these mythical moderate rebels,” Senator Ted Cruz of Texas complained. “It’s like a purple unicorn—they never exist. These moderate rebels end up being jihadists.”
Cruz said that the White House “and, unfortunately, more than a few Republicans” have made ridding the world of megalomaniacs like Muammar Gaddafi, who ruled Libya for 42 years until he was ousted and killed in 2011, more important than keeping Americans safe. “We were told then that there were these moderate rebels that would take over,” Cruz said. “Well, the result is, Libya is now a terrorist war zone run by jihadists.” Much the same thing happened in Egypt, he claimed, when “the Obama Administration, encouraged by Republicans,” ousted longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak, and is happening again in Syria.
“We need to learn from history,” Cruz said. “Assad is a bad man. Gaddafi was a bad man. Mubarak had a terrible human rights record. But they were assisting us—at least Gadhafi and Mubarak—in fighting radical Islamic terrorists.” If Assad is removed, “the result will be ISIS will take over Syria, and it will worsen U.S. national security interests.”
Marco Rubio, the Florida senator who pushed for Gaddafi’s ouster, said realpolitik sometimes requires distasteful partners. “We will have to work around the world with less than ideal governments,” he said, citing Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which caused heartburn in Amman and Riyadh.
Neurosurgeon Ben Carson said “the Middle East has been in turmoil for thousands of years,” and the idea that U.S. military involvement will straighten things out is misguided: “No one is ever better off with dictators but…we need to start thinking about the needs of the American people before we go and solve everybody else’s problems.”
Jeb Bush said toppling Saddam Hussein—a 2003 war initiated by his brother, President George W. Bush—was a good thing. But he added that its key lesson is that the U.S. must have “a strategy to get out” and leave a “stable situation” behind. That has never been a U.S. strength. Invasions are quick, easy and relatively cheap compared to the decades-long push to try to rebuild a more moderate nation to replace a dictatorship. Americans may dislike war, but they dislike pumping billions to rebuild shattered counties even more.
Paul agreed that it’s the what-comes-next question that has dogged U.S. policy since 9/11. “Out of regime change you get chaos,” he said. “From the chaos you have seen repeatedly the rise of radical Islam.” The issue is one of “the fundamental questions of our time,” and not necessarily black and white. “I don’t think because I think the [Iraq] regime change was a bad idea,” Paul said, “it means that Hussein was necessarily a good idea.”
For generations, the U.S. fought left-wing dictators (Fidel Castro in Cuba, for example) while bolstering right-wing autocrats (Augusto Pinochet in Chile). This was largely because of the Cold War, where leftist regimes allied themselves with the Soviet Union, and rightist ones cozied up to the U.S. But it has been 25 years since the Soviet Union’s demise. That’s unleashed all sorts of local tensions, ranging from nationalist to religious, that the Cold War had kept largely tamped down.
Nowhere has that energy exploded as quickly and violently as in the so-called arc of crisis stretching from northern Africa, through the Middle East, and on to the Central Asian states. Fueled by the nearly 1,500-year split between the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam, the collapsing regimes have entangled the U.S. in civil and religious wars and triggered the rise of terror groups like al Qaeda and ISIS.
“We’ve spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people,” Donald Trump said, referring to the eventual total price tag of the Afghan and Iraq wars. “It’s not like we had victory—it’s a mess.” While the debate over the pros and cons of backing—or, at least, not attacking—dictators will continue, no one on stage challenged Trump’s accounting.