GOP Candidates Split Over Toppling Mideast Dictators; Trump, Cruz, Paul Oppose It

By Patrick Goodenough | December 16, 2015 | 4:14 AM EST

( – The field in Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate was sharply divided between those in favor of and those opposed to the ousting of dictators in the Middle East, with a particular focus on Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

Businessman Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz both spoke against toppling Assad – Trump on the basis that the Syrian rebels are an unknown quantity and the U.S. should prioritize defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS); and Cruz on the grounds Assad’s overthrow would lead to an ISIS takeover.

Cruz pointed to the rise of jihadists in Libya and Iraq, and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, after the downfall of those counties’ dictators.

“We need to learn from history,” he said, adding that President Obama, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton “and far too many Republicans want to topple Assad.”

He said the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi “was a bad man” and former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak “had a terrible human rights record” – but both had helped the U.S. “in fighting radical Islamic terrorists.”

“And if we topple Assad, the result will be ISIS will take over Syria, and it will worsen U.S. national security interests.”

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky also doubted the wisdom of ousting dictators in the region, saying the call for ousting Assad was “a huge mistake” and that “out of regime change you get chaos,” leading to the rise of radical Islam.

“There is often variations of evil on both sides of the war. What we have to decide is whether or not regime change is a good idea,” Paul said. “It’s what the neoconservatives have wanted; it’s what the vast majority of those on the stage want.”

“They still want regime change,” he continued. “They want it in Syria. They wanted it in Iraq. They want it in Libya. It has not worked.”

Neurosurgeon Ben Carson said U.S. leaders should be prioritizing the needs of the American people before trying to solve others’ problems, and reached for an analogy from air travel.

“When you’re on an airplane, they always say, ‘in case of an emergency oxygen masks will drop down. Put yours on first and then administer help to your neighbor,’” he said.

“We need oxygen right now. And we need to start thinking about the needs of the American people before we go and solve everybody else's problems.”

Carson said the region “has been in turmoil for thousands of years.”

“For us to think that we're going to in there and fix that with a couple of little bombs and a few little decorations is relatively foolish.”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich both spoke in favor of bringing down despots in the Middle East.

Kasich expressed incredulity that any candidate would not want to see Assad gone, pointing to the potential strategic implications of his survival.

“I don’t understand this thing about Assad. He has to go,” he declared. “Assad is aligned with Iran and Russia. The one thing we want to prevent is we want to prevent Iran being able to extend a Shia crescent all across the Middle East. Assad has got to go.”

Kasich said he did not believe the U.S. should be the world’s “policeman,” but added that the removal of Assad would deal a blow to Iran and Russia.

‘I will not shed a tear’

In response to a question about his support for the overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011, Rubio highlighted the autocratic leader’s involvement in anti-U.S. terrorism, citing the 1988 Lockerbie bombing and the 1986 bombing of a Berlin disco, which killed two American servicemen.

“The revolt against Gaddafi was not started by the United States. It was started by the Libyan people,” Rubio said. “And the reason why I argued we needed to get involved is because he was going to go one way or the other. And my argument then was proven true, and that is, the longer that civil war took, the more militias would be formed and the more unstable the country would be after the fact.”

Rubio conceded that the U.S. would need to work with less-than-ideal governments, pointing to Saudi Arabia and Jordan as examples.

“But anti-American dictators like Assad, who help Hezbollah, who helped get those IEDs into Iraq [to be used against U.S. troops during the war there], if they go, I will not shed a tear.”

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in response to a question said he still believed that the removal of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein – which occurred during the presidency of his brother, President George W. Bush – was “a pretty good deal.”

He added that lessons learned from the war was the need to have “a strategy to get out – which means that you create a stable situation.”

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina sought to move the spotlight onto Hillary Clinton, citing her approach to the civil wars in both Syria and Libya.

“Recall that she called Bashar al-Assad a positive reformer and then she opened an embassy and then later she said, over and over and over again, ‘Bashar al-Assad must go’ – although she wasn’t prepared to do anything about it.

“Recall that Hillary Clinton was all for toppling Gaddafi then didn’t listen to her own people on the ground,” Fiorina said. “And then of course, when she lied about the terrorist attack in Benghazi, she invited more terrorist attacks.”

(Clinton did not in fact herself describe Assad as a reformer. In an interview two weeks after the unrest began in mid-March 2011, she said, “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”)

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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