GOP Debate Brings Out Tough Talk on Syria

Candidates neglect Islamists waiting in the wings.

Three of the four Republican presidential candidates endorsed regime change in Syria during last night’s debate, with Ron Paul being the lone exception. These candidates were quick to call for action against the Iranian ally but failed to mention some of the concerns about Islamists within the Syrian opposition and the support it has gotten from the terrorist group al-Qaeda. National security is becoming a more pronounced issue as voters in Arizona and Michigan go to the polls on February 28.

Rick Santorum, arguably the new frontrunner, described Syria as a “puppet state of Iran” and said “we could do no worse” than the Assad regime. Newt Gingrich was more specific and said the U.S. should covertly arm the Syrian rebels so they can topple the regime. Ron Paul railed against any type of interventionist policy.

Mitt Romney said that Syria is “Iran’s route to the sea” and that the revolution is something that the U.S. must “grab hold of.” He said that a message must be sent to the Allawite minority that supports Assad that it will be safe if it joins the opposition. He argued that regime change in Syria would maximize pressure on Iran and “change the course of world history.” One concerning suggestion he made was to ask Turkey and Saudi Arabia to arm the Syrian rebels. Both governments are Islamist and we should be very wary of their influence.

A significant amount of time was devoted to Iran and a possible Israeli strike. The same three candidates said the U.S. should support Israel if it decides that military action is necessary to stop a nuclear-armed Iran.

Rick Santorum described himself as the longest champion of the Iranian opposition seeking to remove the regime. He recalled how he sponsored the Iran Freedom and Support Act that allotted $100 million to the opposition annually but was opposed by the Bush administration. As a result, Santorum said, the Green Revolution sparked in 2009 failed to bring the regime down. He criticized President Obama for helping the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Libya while softly treating the Iranian regime that targets the U.S., dubbed the “Great Satan.”

Mitt Romney said that Iran is President Obama’s biggest failure and predicted that his re-election would permit Iran to build nuclear weapons. He slammed the president for agreeing to remove the anti-ballistic missile systems from Eastern Europe at Russia’s request without demanding that the Russians permit tough sanctions on Iran.  Like Santorum, he ridiculed Obama for failing to support the Iranian opposition. Romney said that the U.S. should tell Iran that it is “considering”  military action.

Newt Gingrich pivoted to talk about energy independence, a theme he repeatedly went back to throughout the night. He began the debate by pledging to bring gas prices down to $2.50 per gallon. He said that if the U.S allowed offshore drilling and opened up federal land so its oil resources can be used, it’d become the world’s largest oil producer and could bring the government $16-18 trillion in royalties over a generation. His goal would be to make the U.S. so self-sufficient that it could tell the Middle East that “we frankly don’t care what you do.”

Ron Paul received his only boos of the night over Iran when he said that there is no evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapon and that “the Iranians can’t possibly attack anybody.” He said that the Iranian regime, if it is seeking nuclear weapons, is only doing so because the U.S. is threatening it. He claimed that the sanctions on Iran are “backfiring”  because Iranians are uniting behind the regime.

Paul argued that the U.S. non-militarily handled its problems with the Soviet Union, which possessed 30,000 nuclear weapons and killed over 100 million people, so Iran should be handled similarly. Paul told the audience that the U.S. has fallen into Al-Qaeda’s trap by engaging in expensive wars overseas. He said that he is the candidate who follows the Christian Just War doctrine.

The next round of primaries will take place in Arizona and Michigan on February 28. The RealClearPolitics poll averages right now have Rick Santorum in first place nationally, ahead of Romney by about 5% but he is trending downwards. In Arizona, Romney has a wide lead of about 8% and it is growing. In Michigan, Santorum is ahead by only about 1% and his lead is decreasing. Political analyst Dick Morris believes that if Romney wins both states, he will probably be impossible to stop.

Both Larry Sabato and Nate Silver felt that Romney won the debate and Santorum lost it. Sabato tweeted that Santorum was “too defensive and kept talking about issues that hurt him.” He awarded both Romney and Gingrich with a grade of a B, followed by Paul with a B- and Santorum with a C+. Silver gave Romney and Paul each a B+, Gingrich a B and Santorum a B-.

The race for the Republican presidential nomination is difficult to predict but one thing is almost a certainty: The nominee will support an aggressive policy of regime change in Syria.

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