The Republican presidential debate at the Venetian Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas showcased most candidates' hawkish tendencies. Although there were numerous belligerent statements made at a venue owned by lavish GOP donor Sheldon Adelson, surveillance and Middle East strategy sparked heated debate between various candidates.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie made his case for continued surveillance by citing two prominent terrorist plots as rationale for such policies: Fort Dix in 2007 and Los Angeles on Tuesday morning. However, the Fort Dix plot was later determined to be an FBI sting operation and the e-mail threat that shut down Los Angeles public schools was quickly determined to be a hoax.
An answer from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz on government surveillance revealed that reforms enacted earlier this year were not for privacy reasons. Calling himself a proud supporter of the USA Freedom Act, Cruz said that one of the purposes of the law was to expand the government's authority to track:
"Cell phones, now we have Internet phones, now we have the phones that terrorists are likely to use and the focus of law enforcement is on targeting the bad guys. You know what the Obama administration keeps getting wrong is whenever anything bad happens they focus on law-abiding citizens instead of focusing on the bad guys."
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul also entered the exchange, which also included Sen. Marco Rubio, mentioning that "the bulk collection of all Americans' records" may not make Americans any safer, but possibly making people "less safe." Then Paul used the surveillance issue to pivot to an attack on Rubio's immigration record, which became a vulnerable position for the Florida senator as the debate continued.The debate also brought up a discussion of Washington's policies of toppling Middle Eastern and North African dictators. Although he reiterated his support for "carpet bombing" ISIS, Cruz also spoke of an "America first" foreign policy.
Cruz said Americans should "learn from history" and realize that "if we topple Assad, the result will be ISIS will take over Syria, and it will worsen U.S. national security interests." Paul also said, "Had Assad been bombed when he used chemical weapons two years ago, ISIS would be in charge of all of Syria now."
Republican frontrunner Donald Trump typically stuck to his campaign theme, "Make America Great Again," but did make a comment hinting at hawkishness of his own.
Trump has voiced some support for a restrained foreign policy, at one time assenting to let Russia fight ISIS in Syria. However, on Tuesday, he responded that in dealing with ISIS, the U.S. should only do "one at a time," implying that there could be a time for deposing President Bashar al-Assad, but only after ISIS has been destroyed.
All the major candidates still made alarming statements, such as the unfounded statement made by both Rubio and Christie that ISIS is either in league with or created by Syria and Iran. Still, despite these remarks and the tit-for-tat back and forth that only distracted from the subject being discussed, the debate did offer revealing moments about where the candidates stand on foreign policy and national security.