Republican presidential candidates assailed the foreign policies of President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, his former secretary of state, at Thursday night’s debate as polls show that Americans are increasingly dissatisfied with the current administration’s approach to national security.
Gov. Scott Walker (R., Wisc.) encapsulated much of the candidates’ criticism of the Obama administration when he said that, "we are leading from behind under the Obama-Clinton doctrine." GOP leaders say the administration has failed to adequately respond to a number of foreign crises in recent years, including the rise of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group in Iraq and Syria, Iran’s efforts to procure nuclear weapons, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and China’s contested building of artificial islands and military outposts in the South China Sea.
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Just 39 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s foreign policy, according to the Real Clear Politics poll average.
Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida and one of the GOP frontrunners, said Obama’s decision to fully withdrawal U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 contributed to the rise of IS. The terrorist group, which evolved from al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), capitalized off the chaos of the Syrian civil war to establish a base of operations before returning to Iraq to capture major cities.
"Barack Obama became president and abandoned Iraq," Bush said. "When he left, al Qaeda was done for. [IS] was created because of the void he left."
Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) attacked Obama for not using the term "radical Islamic terrorism" and for not doing enough to defeat jihadists. Months of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria have failed to significantly degrade IS.
"What we need is a commander in chief who makes clear: if you join [IS], if you wage jihad on America, than you are signing your death warrant," Cruz said.
Candidates also expressed opposition to the recently completed nuclear deal with Iran, which critics say will make Tehran a nuclear threshold state and grant it as much as $100 billion in sanctions relief to further bolster its regional terrorist proxies.
Walker said he would "terminate the deal on day one" and then "go to Congress and put even more crippling sanctions in place" on Iran.
Gov. Chris Christie (R., N.J.) spoke about rebuilding the nation’s armed forces, which could face $1 trillion in budget cuts in the next decade. He said the Army and Marines should have no less than 500,000 troops, and that the Navy needs more ships to preserve international trading routes and global stability.
"Those are the kinds of things that will send a clear message around the world," he said.
Christie sparred at times with Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.), the most non-interventionist GOP candidate on the debate stage. When Paul criticized the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance methods by saying that he wants to "collect more records from terrorists but less records from innocent Americans," Christie responded, "that's a completely ridiculous answer."
"When you're sitting in a subcommittee blowing hot air about that you can say things like that," he said. "When you're responsible for protecting the lives of the American people, then you need to make sure that you use" all tools available, Christie added.
Paul also declined to say that he would not cut foreign aid to Israel, a position at odds with virtually all of the other candidates and party leaders. "We cannot give away money we don’t have," he said.
The candidates also launched barbs at Clinton for maintaining a private email server, which might have contained substantial classified information and is currently subject to a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe.
"The Russian and Chinese governments know more about Hillary Clinton’s emails than the United States Congress," Walker said in a reference to recent cyber attacks by the two countries.