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Opinion Four GOP candidates not prepared to be commander in chief

Republican presidential candidates Ohio Governor John Kasich, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Ben Carson take the stage during the Republican Presidential Debate in Greenville, South Carolina, February 13, 2016. (EPA/Erik S. Lesser)

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Sen. Marco Rubio represents Texas. He is a senator from Florida. This version has been corrected.

For Republicans genuinely trying to determine which of the presidential candidates is prepared to be commander in chief, Saturday’s debate should have made things easier.

Let’s start with the incontrovertible: Donald Trump has no clue what he is saying, in large part because he has contempt for the truth. There is no — zero, zilch — evidence President George W. Bush “lied” about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Not even Hillary Clinton — who thought the same thing — would go so far. Every major Western intelligence agency believed there were WMDs in Iraq as did then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, current Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and  Bob  Woodward.

Trump’s indifference to the facts carries over into present conditions. At the debate he insisted: “We have allies, so-called allies. We’re spending billions and billions of dollars supporting people — we have no idea who they are in Syria. Do we want to stay that route, or do we want to go and make something with Russia?” The only ones who think Russia is on our side work for the Obama administration; our allies, members of Congress and outside experts understand that making a deal with Russia means Bashar al-Assad stays in power, Iran chalks up a victory and the bloody civil war drags on.

Donald Trump got into it with pretty much every other candidate at the Feb. 13 CBS News GOP debate. (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

But Ohio Gov. John Kasich — who thinks we can simply police the Iran deal — is not any better. During the debate he said we should not involve ourselves in civil wars, a stance that mimics President Obama’s approach to Syria and which would have precluded action in the Balkans under President Bill Clinton.  He tried to clarify matters on “Meet the Press”:

KASICH: You know, frankly, that’s something that people ought to be thinking about in regard to Hillary. You know, they talk about Benghazi, which is very legitimate. Of course it is. But we should never have deposed [Moammar] Gaddafi. That was a terrible mistake. The guy was working with us. And now, we’ve created chaos in that country. Look, I was not in favor of U.S. troops in Lebanon. And I voted against it. Even when Reagan wanted them there. Tip O’Neill wanted them there. Then when they got blown up, Tip was out blaming Reagan. And I never forget it. You know, since the sixth century, Sunni and Shiite have been fighting. And we want to get in the middle of that, it makes no sense.
TODD: So you would stay out of Syria?
KASICH: I would only go to Syria to destroy ISIS. I would not use U.S. troops to depose Assad. But I would support the rebels there. It’s OK to support those people who share your view. But for the United States to be embroiled in a civil war in Syria against Assad I think is a big mistake.

This is factually wrong. Gaddafi was in the midst of being overthrown in a gruesome civil war, we did not wake up a decide out of the blue to depose him. He was not “working with us.” (He ordered the murder of hundreds in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 and continued to support terrorism after 9/11 (including a plot to cause upheaval in Saudi Arabia.)  As for Syria, Kasich is laboring under the misconception that we can defeat the Islamic State (which requires engaging Sunni armies) and somehow leave Assad in power. This is fanciful, which is why the administration, however lamely, continues to suggest Assad must go. Others have noted Kasich is all over the map:

Kasich has previously called for sending U.S. ground troops to Syria and for a no-fly zone in the country to protect civilians. He has also said that “it is not our job to try to get Sunni and Shiite … to live together peacefully” and that it’s “not our job to nation-build them.” His views on forced regime change in Syria put him in the same camp as Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R) and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Jeb Bush said it correctly in the debate, namely that “to allow Russia now to have influence in Syria makes it harder, but 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 is the problem. Donald Trump brought up the fact that he would — he’d want to accommodate Russia. Russia is not taking out ISIS. They’re — they’re attacking our — our — our team, the team that we’ve been training and the team that we’ve been supporting. It is absolutely ludicrous to suggest that Russia could be a positive partner in this.” (This is the view of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) as well.)

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Then there is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) whose only vote on a budget contained less defense spending than Obama would have preferred and who voted to hamstring the NSA (and often misled audiences into believing  the government routinely and with no court supervision listened in on phone calls). He also would leave Assad in power. His “plan” for fighting the Islamic State didn’t even pass the straight-face test with CBS’s John Dickerson. In the debate it went like this:

CRUZ: We need overwhelming air power, we need to arm the Kurds who can be our boots on the ground, and if ground troops are necessary than we should employ them, but it shouldn’t be politicians demonstrating political toughness. It should be military expert judgement carrying out the objectives set out by the commander in chief.
DICKERSON: Very quickly, 30-second follow-up. You’ve said that essentially the Kurds would be the American ground forces in there. The criticism that experts have on that is that the Kurds only can work within their territory.
If they take larger amounts of territory, you have an ethnic war with the Arabs. So the Kurds can’t really do as much as you seem to be putting on their backs.
CRUZ: We have Kurds in both Iraq and Syria. They are fighting ISIS right now. They are winning victories right now. ISIS is using American military equipment they’ve seized in Iraq. And the Obama administration refuses to arm the Kurds, the Peshmerga, the fighting forces who have been longtime allies.

Dickerson is right, of course. Cruz does not answer and simply reiterates his view that we should arm the Kurds.  So Cruz, departing from his view that we can simply “carpet bomb” our way to victory, adds as almost an afterthought: “Now if we need to embed Special Forces to direct our overwhelming air power, if it is required to use ground troops to defeat ISIS, we should use them, but we ought to start with using our incredible air power advantage.” That incremental, unrealistic approach is nearly identical to Hillary Clinton’s, although it does suggest he is trying to run away from his prior position that air power alone could decide this. He ignores the limits of air power and the Islamic State’s occupation of populated areas as well as the advice of current and former experts and military commanders. It is this sort of slipshod, unserious patter that has put Cruz at a disadvantage on national security in South Carolina.

And then there is Ben Carson. Well, Republicans seem to have figured out he’s lost when it comes to foreign policy.

Republicans have a choice in their nominating process. The first choice is whether they want a serious commander in chief. If so, Kasich, Carson, Trump and Cruz should worry — or get some serious advice from people who know better.