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Debate Reveals Republican Split on Neocon Orthodoxies

A growing number of Republican presidental candidates are deviating from neocon foreign policy orthodoxies

Originally appeared at Consortium News

On Tuesday night, the Republican Party clown car deposited its passengers onto the main stage of the Venetian Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas for the troupe’s final performance of 2015. Because Donald Trump remains the GOP front runner by as much as 27 points, the Venetian was an apt location: a tawdry setting with fake Venetian landmarks for a faux debate.

The debate didn’t produce the fireworks CNN was clearly hoping for. Relations between Trump and his main rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, remained downright cordial, while the moderator’s several attempts to goad Jeb Bush into attacking Trump failed to elicit much in the way of a response from the Donald, aside from facial contortions.

Along with CNN, another disappointed party must have been the owner of the Venetian, Sheldon Adeslon. The casino mogul, a longtime bankroller of neoconservative candidates and causes, could not have been pleased that the so-called “national security” debate turned into an argument over the merits of “regime change” in the Middle East.

While five of the nine candidates (Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie) parroted the standard neocon talking points, four of them, including Trump and current Iowa frontrunner Ted Cruz, pushed back on the idea that the U.S. has been well served by toppling the regimes of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

Early on, Marco Rubio came in for a heavy drubbing by both Rand Paul and Ted Cruz for his endorsement of the National Security Agency’s bulk metadata collection program. Later on, a question over whether or not we would be “better off” with dictators ruling the Middle East touched off the evening’s most edifying exchange.

Kentucky Sen. Paul noted that the administration’s decision to try and overthrow Bashar al-Assad by sending 600 tons of weapons to the “moderate” Syrian opposition helped give rise to ISIS. Cruz said that democracy promotion was “a distraction” and called for an “America first” foreign policy, while Trump called President George W. Bush’s Iraq War a “tremendous disservice not only to the Middle East but to humanity.”

Whether or not Trump will take a moment to consider whether his own proposals, such as the targeting of innocent civilians and instituting a religious test to gain entry into the U.S., do much to further the cause of “humanity” remains to be seen.

Throughout the night the unhinged militarism of the Republican Party’s establishment candidates constantly bubbled up to the surface. Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s performance surely gave him a boost in the so-called Adelson primary. When asked how he would defeat ISIS, Kasich said he would “go in massively.” Later on, the Ohio governor and former member of the House Armed Services committee said that he believes it is time we “punch the Russians in the nose.”

Not to be outdone, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called President Barack Obama, whose leadership he so effusively praised in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, a “feckless weakling.” Christie also said that he would enforce a “no-fly zone” over Syria and that he would shoot down any Russian aircraft that dared violate it. Jeb Bush also reiterated his support for a “no-fly zone” over Syria without seeming to notice, or care, that that airspace is firmly under Russian control.

If many of the soon-to-be second-tier candidates were positively bloodthirsty, some of the others seemed to be on autopilot. Trump lazily (so much for “high energy”) repeated lines from his standard stump speech, while Christie continued to channel 2008 presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani by shamelessly invoking 9/11 whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Rubio also stuck closely to his favorite themes and in so doing reminded this viewer of Alden Pyle, the “quiet American” of Graham Greene’s creation who was “impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance.” Like Pyle, Rubio exudes a kind of boyish earnestness that serves to mask a white-hot fanaticism.

Rubio defended his support for NATO’s intervention in Libya by claiming Gaddafi was “going to go one way or another.” He darkly warned that the West is losing “the propaganda war” with ISIS, and also attacked Cruz for repeatedly voting against Defense Authorization Acts which, according to Rubio, fund “important programs” like the Iron Dome. Pointing out that the Iron Dome enhances Israeli, not American, security would surely doom one’s chances of success in the Adelson primary. So no one did.

Overall, however, the tenor of the debate must have come as something of a rude shock to Adelson, who has long sought to parlay his largess into influence, particularly with regard to American Middle East policy. In spite of all of those millions he has lavished on Republicans, nearly half the candidates signaled that they were ready, in some limited respects anyway, to move past the failed neoconservative foreign policies that have been on offer by the GOP for the past three election cycles.

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