Kyle Menyhert

Columnist of Free Russia Foundation

GOP debate: Are you qualified to deal with Vladimir Putin?

The debate schedule marches on in the United States. On Tuesday, the top nine Republican Party candidates, as well as four less popular candidates, debated each other again, this time focusing mostly on national security and on fighting terrorism.

Understandably, the debate started in Syria, where a complicated civil war has become a proxy crusade for the United States, Europe, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

Governor John Kasich of Ohio was first to chime in, and he didn’t leave much reservation about his view.

“I don’t understand this thing about Assad. He has to go. 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.”

The idea of Iran “extending a Shi’a crescent all across the Middle East”, however, is melodramatic and not entirely accurate. It’s true that Iran is vying for influence in the Middle East as one of its largest, wealthiest, and most stable powers, and it is an Islamic Republic that offers support to Hezbollah (a Shi’a terrorist group in Lebanon), but Shi’a Islam is not a dominant faith in the Middle East, not to mention the great division still exists between the Shi’a and Sunni branches of Islam. Furthermore, Syria is a predominantly Sunni country. The only countries in the world where Shi’a Islam is the predominant faith are Iran, Azerbaijan, and Iraq, which has a considerable Sunni minority.

Kasich went on to defend the idea of supporting the “moderate rebels”, a phrase that has been the subject of harsh ridicule in press outlets both inside and outside the United States.

“And there are moderates there. There are moderates in Syria who we should be supporting. I do not support a civil war. I don’t want to be the policeman of the world. But we can’t back off of this. And let me tell you, in the end, the Saudis have agreed to put together a coalition inside of Syria to stabilize that country. He [Assad] must go. It will be a blow to Iran and Russia.”

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Real estate mogul Donald Trump exercised caution.

“We have to do one thing at a time. We can’t be fighting ISIS and fighting Assad. Assad is fighting ISIS. Russia is fighting now ISIS. And Iran is fighting ISIS. We have to do one thing at a time. We can’t go — and I watched Lindsey Graham, he said, I have been here for ten years fighting. Well, he will be there with that thinking for another 50 years. He won’t be able to solve the problem…We have to get rid of ISIS first. After we get rid of ISIS, we’ll start thinking about it. But we can’t be fighting Assad. And when you’re fighting Assad, you are fighting Russia, you’re fighting — you’re fighting a lot of different groups.”

Trump again implied staying out of Syria’s leadership dispute was the best course of action, which is sure to resonate with voters fed up with the complicated nature of the war and the lack of results achieved. And he is right to warn against the risks of fighting and expanding a proxy war where Russia is involved.

Fiery foreign policy rhetoric was present in the debate, but this time, it was from the Ohio Governor.

“Frankly, it’s time that we punched the Russians in the nose. They’ve gotten away with too much in this world, and we need to stand up against them, not just there, but also in Eastern Europe where they threaten some of our most precious allies.”

Anger and frustration against the Kremlin’s policy are in many cases warranted. This kind of statement, however, isn’t likely to win over many people in Moscow. Apparently, “speak softly and carry a big stick” is no longer in use by the GOP.

Speaking of fiery rhetoric, Carly Fiorina was called to clarify her earlier remarks about “not talking to Putin.”

“I didn’t say I would cut off all communication with Putin. What I said was as president of the United States, now is not the time to talk with him. Reagan walked away at Reykjavik. There are a time and a place for everything. There are a time and a place for talk. And there is a time and a place for action.

I know Vladimir Putin. He respects strength. He lied to our president’s face; didn’t both to tell him about warplanes and troops going into Syria. We need to speak to him from a position of strength. So as commander in chief, I will not speak to him until we’ve set up that no-fly zone…and I will not speak to him personally until we’ve rebuilt the 6th Fleet a little bit right under his nose; rebuilt the missile defense program in Poland right under his nose; and conducted a few military exercises in the Baltic states.”

Fiorina’s comparison to the Reykjavik Summit between President Ronald Reagan and Premier Mikhail Gorbachev is a bit faulty. The talks between Reagan and Gorbachev in Iceland did fall apart at the last minute, but a deal was struck slightly less than a year later in Washington. The climate in which Reagan and Gorbachev met was also much, much different. Gorbachev was not riding the wave of an approval rating in the eighties fueled by nationalism and military campaigns. Putin is. In fact, Gorbachev’s rule came at the end of a war in Afghanistan and a nosediving economy. The Russian economy is sputtering from sanctions and the resource curse, but it’s hardly in the nosedive that it was in the mid-1980s. Furthermore, detailing in a debate watched by millions the rebuilding of the missile defense program in Poland and the 6th Fleet is hardly covert.

Chris Christie also got in on the debate when he was asked if he would be “prepared to shoot down that Russian plane and risk war with Russia [if a no-fly zone with Russia was implemented]?

“Not only would I be prepared to do it, I would do it. A no-fly zone means a no-fly zone. That’s what it means…I would talk to Vladimir Putin a lot. But I’d say to him, “Listen, Mr. President, there’s a no-fly zone in Syria; you fly in, it applies to you.” And yes, we would shoot down the planes of Russian pilots if in fact they were stupid enough to think that this president was the same feckless weakling that the president we have in the Oval Office is right now.”

This quickly led to a rebuttal from Senator Rand Paul. “Well, I think if you’re for World War III, you have your candidate. My goodness, what we want in a leader is someone with judgment, not someone who is so reckless as to stand on the stage and say, “Yes, I’m jumping up and down; I’m going to shoot down Russian planes.” Russia already flies in that airspace. It may not be something we’re in love with the fact that they’re there, but they were invited by Iraq and by Syria to fly in that airspace. And so if we announce we’re going to have a no-fly zone, and others have said this. Hillary Clinton is also for it. It is a recipe for disaster. It’s a recipe for World War III. We need to confront Russia from a position of strength, but we don’t need to confront Russia from a point of recklessness that would lead to war.”

Christie retorted quickly. “I’ll tell you what reckless is. What reckless is is calling Assad a reformer? What reckless is allowing Russia to come into Crimea and Ukraine? What reckless is is inviting Russia into Syria to team with Iran? That is reckless. And the reckless people are the folks in the White House right now. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are the reckless people. And if you think that a no-fly zone is a reckless policy, you’re welcome to your opinion. But how is it working so far? As we have 250,000 Syrians murdered, slaughtered; millions are running around the world, running for their lives. It’s not working. We need to try something else. And that is not reckless.”

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 15: Republican presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) (R) speaks as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie listens during the CNN Republican presidential debate on December 15, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. This is the last GOP debate of the year, with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) gaining in the polls in Iowa and other early voting states and Donald Trump rising in national polls. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Christie is correct that Assad is no reformer, and that Russia’s intrusion into Crimea and Ukraine was done without regard for the international community’s opinions. The choice of calling the Obama Administration “reckless” is odd, though, most American hawks usually use the words “weak,” “ineffective”, or “incompetent.”

A no-fly zone is, as Senator Paul said, extremely risky. Putin might back down if it is set in motion but the risk that kind of action invites is not likely to sit well with many Americans and even if he does back down, US-Russian relations will continue to deteriorate.

Ben Carson also had a memorable quote on US-Russian relations. “We need to get rid of those [archaic energy exploitation rules] allow ourselves to make really Europe dependent on us and other parts of the world dependent on us for energy. Put him [Putin] back in his little box where he belongs.”

Whether deregulation would be as effective as Carson alleges is not known for sure. Considering how low the price of oil is these days, it may not even be necessary from America’s point of view. The idea of Putin being put in (Apologies for this bad joke) a little box “where he belongs” is quite amusing, though.