By Michael Howard


I spent most of the Republican debate of Tuesday, December 15th, the final GOP presidential candidate gathering of the year, puzzling over how anybody could possibly take it seriously.

I also wondered whether the candidates were actually as ignorant as they presented themselves to be. Do they really have no grasp of the situation in Syria, or are they just pretending not to? Is serious policy discussion simply too much for the American public to process? I suppose it’s possible. Scratch that—it’s probable. Definitely probable.

ISIS, naturally, was the overriding topic of debate, despite there being only one quasi-ISIS-inspired attack in the United States to date. 

Every person on the stage spoke loudly and confidently about the importance of developing a “strategy” to destroy the Islamic State. But lo and behold, nothing resembling a strategy was discussed. Instead we heard a lot of vague talk about coalitions, boots (grounded or otherwise), and bombs.

Ted Cruz found himself dodging questions about his prescription to “carpet bomb” areas of Syria and Iraq currently controlled by ISIS (and packed with civilians). His response – that he only meant precision strikes on strategic ISIS positions – suggests that he either doesn’t know what carpet bombing is, or he just now realized that his proposed solution essentially amounts to genocide. I’m not sure which is more disquieting. 

Similarly, Donald Trump was asked to explain his comments about murdering the families of suspected terrorists. His response was that we need to be “tough” about this stuff. The family members of the San Bernardino attackers, he argued, "saw the pipe bombs all over the floor”—they knew what was going on, what was coming. Therefore, kill them.

But does Trump really mean that? I seriously doubt it. I think he’s someone who is so accustomed to running his mouth off without being held accountable for what comes out of it that he can’t help himself. Does he hate Muslims? Does he even dislike them? Again, I doubt it. But you know who does? A good chunk of his voter base, that’s who. And Trump, it turns out, is not afraid of being perceived as bigoted or fascist or anything else. The Donald doesn’t care. He’s a demagogue’s demagogue. 

It should be noted that, in spite of his glibness and vulgarity, Trump occasionally makes a lot of sense. The Iraq war was a shockingly bad foreign policy decision (he called it back in 2003). Nuclear proliferation is the world’s most serious issue. The U.S. does need to stop burning trillions of dollars on wars of choice. These are good, common sense points—and ones that scarcely make it into the mainstream political discourse. But, just as he couldn’t care less about coming across as racist, Trump couldn’t care less about defending and justifying the misdeeds of past Republican administrations. George W. Bush was shit—and Trump will call a spade a spade.

Which is not to write that Trump should even be running for president, let alone leading the pack. 

After all, Cruz makes sense from time to time, too. It was a relief that Tuesday night to hear him call bullshit on the Obama/Clinton approach to the Syrian conflict—the one that says we need to help the “moderate rebels” depose Assad, at which point democracy will magically be ushered in. This moderate opposition force, Cruz enlightened the audience, is a “purple unicorn.” It doesn’t exist. By arming rebels in Syria, you’re arming people who think like Osama Bin Laden did—and you’re giving new meaning to Gore Vidal’s famous backronym for U.S.A.

Furthermore, regime change is untenable. Cruz knows this; so does Trump. (Rand Paul knows this, too, but he makes far too much general sense for the GOP; hence his dismal performance in the polls.) The United States effected regime change in Iraq, and what was the result? ISIS. The U.S. – following Hillary’s lead – toppled Gaddafi in Libya (got him brutally murdered, in fact). The result? Utter chaos; a safe haven for jihadists; more terrorism. 

On the other end of the spectrum you’ve got Christopher Christie, Marco Rubio, and John Ellis Bush, all of whom are adamant that the U.S. military, which they believe is so pitiably inadequate, needs revamping and expanding. (For context: the U.S. spends more on its military than the next ten countries combined.) These three ultra-jingoists are still clinging to the Bush Doctrine. In other words, they still believe – or claim to believe – that it is a good idea to, as Noam Chomsky put it, “hit a vulnerable society [Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria] with a sledgehammer.” What could possibly go wrong?

Taking hawkishness to new heights, Christie boasted that, should he become president, Russian airplanes flying over Syria would be shot down. After all, those planes would be violating the no-fly-zone that Christie and Rubio (and Clinton) want so desperately to implement. Never mind that Russia has been invited by Assad to help combat ISIS, and, unlike certain NATO countries, actually has a firm interest in doing so. Syrian autonomy, of course, is not a consideration. Some think it’s the self-appointed right of the United States to commandeer a foreign country’s airspace and shoot anyone who comes near it. 

Christie, then, is actually eager to start another world war; he is boasting about it beforehand. Rand Paul, who appeared genuinely taken aback by Christie’s madman rhetoric, said it eloquently enough: “If you want WWIII, you have your candidate.” And yet according to Christie, Iran – who, let us remember, has never started a war – poses the gravest threat to world peace. Take a moment to appreciate the irony.

Unsurprisingly, all of the candidates – excepting Paul, who, again, is too sensible for his own good – took full advantage of the San Bernardino attacks. Ben Carson, the hammer-wielding idiot-savant neurosurgeon, even called for a moment of silence to commemorate the victims. How sweet. Of course, there was no recognition of the fact that it was only one of more than 300 mass shootings that took place in the U.S. this year. Guns and their availability did not factor into the discussion. 

Had the massacre been committed by another demented college student, it would have been glossed over. But owing to its jihadist aspect, it was invoked at least thirty times, most cynically by Christie, who despises the Fourth Amendment and never misses an opportunity to rationalize mass surveillance.

If we are to believe the third Bush, the U.S. is now – because of the shooting – in danger of being “destroyed” by ISIS. That’s right, a 100,000-man guerilla force stationed in parts of Iraq and Syria allegedly has the power to smash the American Empire. You don’t want to be destroyed, do you? Of course you don’t. That’s why we’re going to give the Pentagon a few more billion dollars. 

So what did we learn? Not much. If anything, the unedifying evening merely reinforced what many of us already know: the Clintons are coming. Brace yourselves.

Michael Howard is a free-lance writer from Buffalo, New York.