Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam.
The Republican debate may have been taking place in Vegas, but over it hung the shadows of the killings in San Bernardino. And many of the Republican candidates stepped up vowing a tougher fight against the Islamic State and other foreign enemies of the United States, including Russia and North Korea.
There were divisions over many of the details, but there was also a consensus that the war had to be won, the military had to be rebuilt and that the truth about terrorism had to be told.
“The war that we are fighting now against radical Islamist jihadists is one that we must win. Our very existence is dependent upon that,” Ben Carson said, after calling for a moment of silence for the victims of the San Bernardino Islamic terrorist attack.
Throughout the debate, Carson made political correctness into his target. America was a patient, he warned, who “would not be cured by political correctness.” He urged us to “get rid of all this PC stuff” and argued that we must do the right thing without worried about being labeled “Islamophobic”.
Specifically referencing the Muslim Brotherhood Memorandum from the Holy Land Foundation trial by name, Carson suggested that one of its tactics entailed using our own political correctness against us.
Ted Cruz agreed that political correctness is crippling our resistance to Islamic terror, stating, “It is not a lack of competence stopping us, it is political correctness.” Referencing the San Bernardino Jihadists who pledged allegiance to ISIS, the Tsarnaev brothers and Nidal Malik Hassan, Cruz warned that, “Political correctness is killing people”.
“Our enemy is not violent extremism,” Cruz said. “It is radical Islamic terrorism. We have a president who is unwilling to utter its name.”
Trump, Cruz and some of the other candidates took a firm and politically incorrect stand against Syrian Muslim migrants. “They’re not coming to this country,” Trump stated flatly. “We will not be admitting Jihadists as refugees,” Cruz said.
Some candidates on the stage disagreed. Jeb Bush warned that such a proposal will push the Muslim world away. “It will push the Muslim world, the Arab world away from us,” he pleaded. Kasich also spoke of “Our Arab friends.” Christie claimed that he had fought Islamic terror “with the Muslim-American community”.
Jeb argued that the United States could not beat ISIS without Muslim aid. “We can’t disassociate ourselves from peace loving Muslims. If we expect to do this on our own, we will fail,” he claimed.
Ted Cruz however pointed out that the head of the FBI had admitted that the Syrian refugees could not be vetted. Christie and other candidates also referenced the FBI statement as a basis for halting the Syrian migrant resettlement program. Rand Paul even noted that every terror attack had occurred as a result of legal immigration. Though there were indeed illegalities in some of the major terror cases.
Cruz positioned immigration as a vital part of the War on Terror. “The front line with ISIS isn’t just in Iraq and Syria; it’s in Kennedy Airport and the Rio Grande”. He also pointed out that even Bill Clinton had “deported 12 million illegal aliens.”
“This is an issue we have to be 100 percent right on,” Rubio conceded, warning of the consequence, “If we allow 9,999 Syrian refugees into the United States, and all of them are good people, but we allow one person in who’s an ISIS killer – we just get one person wrong, we’ve got a serious problem.”
All the Republican candidates on stage vowed to be tough on ISIS, but they differed over topics such as the NSA, the treatment of terrorists who are American citizens and regime change.
“If you’re an American citizen and you decide to join up with ISIS, we’re not going to read you your Miranda rights. You’re going to be treated as an enemy combatant, a member of an army attacking this country,” Rubio boldly warned.
“We have to put America’s security first,” Christie urged.
Defying boos over his suggestion that Syria’s access to the internet should be shut down or eavesdropped on, Trump challenged them, “These are people that want to kill us, folks, and you’re – you’re objecting to us infiltrating their conversations?”
Rand Paul stated that Trump’s proposals would “defy every norm that is America”. Trump however retorted, “So, they can kill us, but we can’t kill them?”
Speaking of broadening the scope of the attacks on ISIS, he said, “They may not care much about their lives, but they do care, believe it or not, about their families’ lives”.
Cruz called out Obama’s “photo op” campaign against ISIS of “launching between 15-30 air attacks a day”. He pointed out that, “In the first Persian Gulf War, we launched roughly 1,100 air attacks a day”.
Discussing the need for a decisive conclusion, Carson opined that with his medical background he believed that, “It’s actually merciful if you go ahead and finish the job” in preference to a prolonged conflict.
He laid out a detailed plan for defeating ISIS by destroying their Caliphate, taking their oil and cutting off their command centers. “There will be boots on the ground and they’ll be over here, and they’ll be their boots if we don’t get them out of there now,” he said.
Ted Cruz suggested that Obama’s weakness fueled the perception that ISIS is winning. Jihadists had to face a scenario in which they would know that joining ISIS means “you are signing your death warrant.”
Carly Fiorina called for bringing back the “warrior class” of purged generals who were “retired early because they told President Obama things that he didn’t want to hear”.
There were heated exchanges over regime change in Libya and arming Sunni Islamist militias, some of which are allied with Al Qaeda.
Cruz spoke of searching “searching for these mythical moderate rebels. It’s like a purple unicorn. They never exist. These moderate rebels end up being jihadists.” Kasich however insisted that, “there are moderates in Syria.”
“We are backing people we have no idea who they are,” Trump said.
Cruz scathingly ridiculed the Arab Spring and its Libyan aftermath in which, “We were told then that there were these moderate rebels that would take over. Well, the result is, Libya is now a terrorist war zone run by jihadists.”
He became the second candidate to reference the Muslim Brotherhood when he discussed the coup against Mubarak and the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood, a “terrorist organization.”
Instead of being democracy promoters, “we ought to hunt down our enemies,” Cruz argued.
However Rubio contended that Assad is one of our enemies, mentioning his role in bringing the IEDs to Iraq that killed American soldiers and his part in aiding Islamic terror groups such as Hezbollah.
“We need to start thinking about the needs of the American people before we go and solve everybody else’s problems,” Carson cautioned.
Trump argued that the biggest threat we face was not, as Obama said, Global Warming, but “nuclear proliferation.”
“Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are responsible for the growth of ISIS because they precipitously withdrew from Iraq in 2011 against the advice of every single general,” Carly Fiorina said.
“Hillary Clinton has gotten every foreign policy challenge wrong,” she fiercely argued. “When she lied about the terrorist attack in Benghazi, she invited more terrorist attacks.”
There was widespread agreement that Obama and Hillary’s foreign policy was the root cause of the crisis.
“We’ve been betrayed by the leadership that Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton have provided to this country over the last number of years,” Christie asserted, calling Obama a “feckless weakling”.
The Republican candidates were also united in a call for the return of American exceptionalism.
“Barack Obama does not believe America’s leadership in the world is a force for good,” Jeb Bush complained.
“There have always been people in American politics that wanted America to be more like the rest of the world. And In 2008, one of them was elected president,” Marco Rubio said.
While the debate did not settle many of the basic questions of theory and practice in the War on Terror, several candidates agreed that everyone on the stage would be a better president than Barack Obama.
“We’ve opened up a very big discussion that needed to be opened up.,” Trump said early on in the debate. And that may be the best description of this debate that continues, not only in Las Vegas or in San Bernardino, but around the tables of American households all across the country.