GOP Debate: Trump Stands His Ground on Foreign Policy

America's role abroad was center stage in South Carolina.

Republican debates in South Carolina, like the one in Greenville on Saturday, have a way of producing audiences friendly to establishment candidates. Marco Rubio particularly benefited this time: the crowd booed Ted Cruz for attacking the Florida senator, while throughout the night it gave Donald Trump a noisily hostile reaction. Rubio, by contrast, basked in cheers.

Nine years earlier another South Carolina debate had brought to light for the first time just what a deep division the Iraq War had sown within the Republican Party, when Ron Paul confronted Rudy Giuliani’s over the latter’s support for an activist foreign policy. Then, too, the audience sided with the establishment—for all the good it did Giuliani. Neither Ron Paul nor his son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, was on stage in Greenville this year, but the open dissent Paul introduced into Republican foreign-policy discussions was loudly echoed/voiced by Donald Trump.

“Obviously, the war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake,” said Trump in response to a question about whether George W. Bush should have been impeached. “They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction, there were none. And they knew there were none. There were no weapons of mass destruction.”

Jeb Bush shot back to defend his family—not only his brother but also his father (“My dad is the greatest man alive in my mind”) and even his mother. “Look, I won the lottery when I was born 63 years ago, looked up and I saw my mom. My mom is the strongest woman I know.” To which Trump replied, “She should be running.”

Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, freshly energized by his second-place finish (behind Trump) in New Hampshire, planted his flag somewhere between Ron Paul and the “humble foreign policy” of George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign. He excused Bush’s faulty intelligence that got us into war in Iraq—“look, we thought there were weapons of mass destruction”—“but,” he continued, “the fact is we got ourselves in the middle of a civil war. . . . The tragedy of it is that we're still embroiled. And, frankly, if there weren't weapons of mass destruction we should never have gone. I don't believe the United States should involve itself in civil wars. “

Kasich had been chairman of the House Budget Committee when Republicans looked skeptically on Bill Clinton’s nation-building projects, and in Greenville he spoke like the ghost of Republican realism past: “The fact is, is that we should go to war when it is our direct interest. We should not be policemen of the world, but when we go, we mean business. We'll do our job. We'll tell our soldiers, our people in the service, take care of your job and then come home once we've accomplished our goals.”

Rubio, on the other hand, sounded rather like Clinton himself, justifying the Iraq War in terms of muscular liberal internationalism: “no matter what you want to say about weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein was in violation of U.N. resolutions, in open violation, and the world wouldn't do anything about it, and George W. Bush enforced what the international community refused to do.”

Even Rubio, however, has moments of relative restraint, whether for prudential or partisan reasons. He mentioned his opposition to Obama’s planned attacks against Assad in 2013: “I looked at Barack Obama's plan—Barack Obama's plan, which John Kerry later described as unbelievably small—and I concluded that that attack would not only not help the situation, it would make it actually worse. It would allow Assad to stand up to the United States of America, survive a strike, stay in power and actually strengthen his grip.

“So it was a difficult decision to make and when we only had a few days to look at and make a decision on it and I voted against Barack Obama's plan to use force, and it was the right decision,” he said.

Jeb Bush, however, is undeterred by Russia’s involvement in support of Assad—he still believes, as he told moderator John Dickerson, that Assad and ISIS must be fought at the same time: “we need to destroy ISIS and dispose of Assad to create a stable Syria so that the four million refugees aren't a breeding ground for Islamic jihadists.”

This prompted an incredulous response from Trump: “You fight ISIS first. Right now you have Russia, you have Iran, you have them with Assad, and you have them with Syria. You have to knock out ISIS. They're chopping off heads. These are animals. You have to knock ’em out. You have to knock them off strong. You decide what to do after, you can't fight two wars at one time.”

He kept his fired trained on Jeb Bush: “If you listen to him, and you listen to some of the folks that I've been listening to, that's why we've been in the Middle East for 15 years, and we haven't won anything. We've spent $5 trillion dollars in the Middle East with thinking like that.” The crowd jeered when Trump proceeded to connect this to Bush supporter—and South Carolina senator—Lindsey Graham, who “had zero on his polls.”