The Republican presidential field is cleaved over questions of how deeply the U.S. should be involved in the Middle East, but analysts say the debate is healthy for the GOP, freeing candidates from the shackles of President George W. Bush’s foreign policy.
The robust GOP fight is matched by near silence among Democrats, where the need to toe the line on President Obama’s troubled foreign policy has stifled debate. The closest the Democrats came to a split over war policy in the candidates’ debate Saturday was when front-runner Hillary Clinton’s rivals accused her of being more hawkish than Mr. Obama.
However, the deep divisions in the GOP were on display at the party’s primary debate last week in Las Vegas. The candidates staked out positions ranging from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s plan to lead a major ground war in Iraq and Syria to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s call for military restraint and an end to regime change plots.
In between, the candidates differed on the size of the U.S. deployment, if any, that would be required and how prominent a role American forces would play in an international coalition to fight the Islamic State, also known by the acronym ISIS.
Billionaire businessman Donald Trump, the GOP front-runner, called for massive airstrikes and strong military action. But he also advocated an end to efforts to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad in the four-year-old civil war that has helped destabilize the region.
“What came across clearly to me on Tuesday night is that there is a conservative alternative position from what we have seen as the Republican center of gravity for the last 20 years,” said political science professor Michael C. Desch, co-director of the Notre Dame International Security Program.
He said the libertarian position articulated by Mr. Paul likely would not win the argument within the party, but it provided room for other candidates to carve out less hawkish positions than those inherited from Mr. Bush, which have been mainstream in the Republican Party.
“You heard echoes of him in Ted Cruz and on occasion in Donald Trump,” said Mr. Desch.
A GOP campaign strategist and pollster, who asked not to be identified by name because of his relationship with individual candidates, said the debate over national security and military options is what voters want to hear.
“I think it is unavoidable. It has to happen because that is what is on voters’ minds,” the pollster said.
National security and the threat of terrorism emanating from the Middle East have become the top issues for voters after the recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California.
Mrs. Clinton, a former secretary of state under Mr. Obama and the clear favorite to win the Democratic nomination, presented a counterterrorism plan last week that was heavy on gun control, including a ban on the sale of military-style rifles in the United States.
“I have news for [Republicans]: Terrorists use guns to kill Americans. I think we should make it harder for them from to do that,” she said in a speech.
Mrs. Clinton also called for shutting down the Islamic State’s online recruitment and publicity operation. She previously advocated for more airstrikes in the Middle East, mostly backing Mr. Obama’s policy of pinpoint bombing and heavy reliance on local Arab fighters on the ground.
“From a political standpoint, it is much better to be having a bigger debate on national security than it is to have one on guns. No matter what the Democrats think, guns are a winning issue for Republicans, not just in Republican primaries but with general election voters,” the GOP pollster said. “There are more non-primary voters that would listen to the Republicans talk about national security, regardless if they agree 100 percent with them or not, but they are going to be listening more to them then they are to the Democrats talk about gun control.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush faces a unique challenge on foreign policy as he attempts to distance himself form the policies of his brother, George W. Bush, while presenting himself as a war-ready conservative.
He stressed the need for a broad international coalition of European and Arab allies, which would include a significant U.S. force.
“We need to embed our troops inside the Iraqi military. We need to arm directly the Kurds. And all of that has to be done in concert with the Arab nations,” said Mr. Bush.
Mr. Cruz called for “carpet-bombing” and sending in American troops to mop up afterward.
Meanwhile, Mr. Rubio insisted that airstrikes alone would not be enough to destroy the Islamic State and its terrorist army of Sunni Muslims, in control of a huge swath of territory in Iraq and Syria and spreading jihad around the globe.
“Airstrikes are a key component of defeating them, but they must be defeated on the ground by a ground force. And that ground force must be primarily made up of Sunni Arabs themselves, Sunni Arabs that reject them ideologically and confront them militarily,” he said.
He said U.S. special forces would fight alongside them and train them.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich took one of the most hawkish stances.
“This is not going to get done just by working with the Sunnis. And it is not going to get done if we just embed a few people,” he said. “We have to go massively, like we did in the first Gulf war.”
“We need to have a coalition that will stand for nothing less than the total destruction of ISIS, and we have to be the leader. We can’t wait for anybody else,” said Mr. Kasich. “We we must lead, or the job won’t get done, unfortunately, for our country.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Mr. Paul said the U.S. should stop meddling by arming rebel fighters in the Middle East and trying to help topple governments.
“Toppling secular dictators in the Middle East has only led to chaos and the rise of radical Islam,” said Mr. Paul, who polls near the bottom of the pack. “If we truly are sincere about defeating terrorism, we need to quit arming the allies of ISIS. If we want to defeat terrorism, the boots on the ground — the boots on the ground need to be Arab boots on the ground.”