When I was 22, I voted for George W. Bush. In a post-Clinton world, Al Gore had no chance with a soon-to-be Army infantry officer like me.
In 2000, it was simply accepted as fact among my peers: America should be strong on defense. Clinton tried to destroy the military. Bush would restore it.
“Clinton and Gore have extended our military commitments while depleting our military power,” Dick Cheney said at the GOP convention that summer. “George W. Bush and I are going to change that.”
That’s true, I thought.
“I have seen our military at its finest,” Cheney went on, “with the best equipment, the best training, and the best leadership . . . And I can promise them now, help is on the way.”
That was the kicker—and I was sold.
Less than three years later, on my second tour in combat, I saw what the “help” looked like. Friends dead. Civilians blown to bits. An Army on the cusp of 15-month-long tours. Bin Laden still on the loose. Hundreds of billions of dollars wasted. And no discernible mission that moved U.S. foreign policy forward in any way.
What I find remarkable is how the Republican presidential candidates this year have either failed—or don’t seem to care—to learn from the experience as I did. The disarray we see now in the Middle East is a direct result of how the Bush administration flipped the table on U.S. foreign policy. And yet the GOP candidates continue to alternate between being just as cavalier with solutions or too indifferent.
I will admit that last night’s GOP primary debate was an improvement over past ones. Donald Trump didn’t advocate for torture and Ted Cruz didn’t push for victory through carpet bombing—as he has previously. Ohio Governor John Kasich did argue for “regime change” in North Korea, but at least that’s not automatically a war crime in and of itself. This is a step in the right direction.
They mostly spoke in vague platitudes. When host Wolf Blitzer asked Kasich if “regime change” in North Korea meant “getting rid of Kim Jong Un,” Kasich responded, “When you talk about regime change, Wolf, it means regime change. That’s what it means.”
Ben Carson’s approach wasn’t much more detailed. “As far as North Korea is concerned,” he said, “you know, Kim Jung Un is an unstable person, but he does understand strength. And I think we have to present strength to him.”
This dialogue was interspersed throughout with dangerous rhetoric like when Ted Cruz concluded by saying he would “rip to shreds the catastrophic Iranian nuclear deal.”
Though at this point, that’s expected.
Perhaps most troubling was where the candidates chose to focus. Afghanistan—where thousands of U.S. troops are stationed and where seven have been killed since mid-December—was never mentioned. Not once.
Iraq—which is half controlled by ISIS—was named a single time. Iran and Syria, having dominated recent headlines, were mentioned only four and six times, respectively. And China, in its quest to build islands and move weaponry into the South China Sea, was mentioned a mere eight times.
None of these came close to Israel. Not by a long shot. Israel took home the trophy. The candidates mentioned Israel no fewer than 49 times. Forty-nine.
Israel is a geo-politically important U.S. ally, but it’s not what national security experts, service members, and their families want to hear about right now.
The fact is that when these men had the opportunity to talk seriously and substantively about how to avoid the mistakes of the past and how to keep America safe while living up to the values that make our country great, they turned it into a pro wrestling spectacle.
At one point, Trump stood with his thumbs out, gesturing at Cruz and Marco Rubio. “This guy’s a choke artist,” he said of Rubio. “And this guy’s a liar,” he said pointing to Cruz.
As I listened to it all, I could only think about the troops we have down range now. I thought about their parents, their spouses, and their kids back home. And I know our military deserves much more than any of these candidates have to offer. We all deserve much more.
Under the next president, America will still face dangerous, seemingly intractable global challenges. We can only hope that when the new help arrives this time, it will be from someone who has taken the lessons of the last 15 years to heart.
Brandon Friedman is the CEO of The McPherson Square Group. He served as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan and Iraq. Follow him on Twitter at @BFriedmanDC.