In a contentious, angry debate among the final six Republican presidential candidates Saturday night, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump provoked the most ire for his attacks on former President George W. Bush and assertions Iraq war was a failure.
“We've been in the Middle East for 15 years, and we haven't won anything,” the business mogul said in response to a question about his support for working with Russia to combat the Islamic State group.
Echoing Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders' comments from just days earlier, Trump proudly touted his opposition to the last Iraq war as proof that he is best suited to become the next commander-in-chief. He accused his Republican rivals of trusting misguided foreign policy experts and not presenting real national security solutions.
“George W. Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes. But that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East.”
“Call it whatever you want,” Trump continued. “They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction, there were none. And they knew there were none.”
The other candidates seized on those comments. Jeb Bush, the former president's brother, led the rebuttals.
“Frankly, I could care less about the insults that Donald Trump gives to me,” Jeb Bush, Florida's former governor, said. “But I am sick and tired of him going after my family. While Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe. And I'm proud of what he did.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio followed up that defense, saying he is “forever grateful” to George W. Bush for his security policies.
“I thank God all the time it was George W. Bush in the White House on 9/11 and not Al Gore,” he said. “You can look back in hindsight and say a couple of things, but he kept us safe.
“And not only did he keep us safe, but no matter what you want to say about weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein was in violation of U.N. resolutions, … and George W. Bush enforced what the international community refused to do.”
George W. Bush remains a controversial figure nationally because of the Iraq war, but he is also a highly respected statesman among Republicans.
Neurosurgeon Ben Carson said he disagreed with the decision to go to war in Iraq, adding that the last Republican president was “able to stabilize the situation” in the Middle East. Ohio Gov. John Kasich defended the decision to move on intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in the region, saying “the fact is we got ourselves in the middle of a civil war.”
All of the candidates vowed to aggressively attack ISIS to protect the American homeland, but they also attacked one another’s plans to accomplish that.
“When it comes to ISIS, we've got to have a focused objective,” argued Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. “One of the problems of [President] Barack Obama and [Democratic frontrunner] Hillary Clinton's foreign policy, and sadly, too many establishment Republicans in Washington, is they focus on issues unrelated to protecting this country.
“They focus on nation building, they focus on toppling governments to promote democracy, and it ends up undermining our national security. With regard to ISIS, we need a commander in chief that sets the objective we will utterly defeat them because they have declared war.”
Trump called Cruz a “liar” and Bush “so wrong” on national security. And for the second consecutive debate, he taunted the audience as being lobbyists and elitists. The debate was the ninth for the Republicans but only the eighth for Trump, who skipped one over Fox News' choice of moderators.
The next Republican primary event takes place in South Carolina next Saturday.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.