Rubio, Cruz at GOP debate: Rebuild our degraded military, crush ISIS

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( – There was little new or unexpected on foreign policy in Thursday night’s Trump-less GOP presidential debate, but the two candidates who vied for the most talk time, Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both argued strongly for the need to rebuild a shrinking U.S. military in order to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The Fox News debate in Des Moines, Iowa came two weeks after President Obama, in a State of the Union dig at Republican critics, scoffed at “all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker.”

The subject emerged early on in the debate, with Rubio saying that only a strong America will defeat “this apocalyptic group called ISIS.”

“That’s why when I’m president we are going to rebuild our intelligence capabilities. And they’re going to tell us where the terrorists are. And a rebuilt U.S. military is going to destroy these terrorists,” he said.

“And if we capture any of these ISIS killers alive, they are going to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and we’re going to find out everything they know, because when I’m president, unlike Barack Obama, we will keep this country safe.”

Later, Rubio returned to the topic of the military in the light of what he said was the need for “overwhelming U.S. force” to defeat ISIS.

“Today, we are on pace to have the smallest Army since the end of World War II, the smallest Navy in 100 years, the smallest Air Force in our history,” he said. “You cannot destroy ISIS with a military that’s being diminished.”

As president, Rubio said, he would rebuild the military “because the world is a safer and a better place when America is the strongest military in the world.”

Cruz also raised the notion of a military “dramatically degraded” by Obama, comparing the situation now to that faced in 1981 by an incoming President Reagan after President Carter “weakened our readiness, undermined our ability to defend this country.”

“Just as morale in the military has plummeted in the last seven [years], so it had then,” he said. “What Reagan did is he began with tax reform and regulatory reform, unleashing the engine of the American free enterprise system. It brought booming economic growth and that growth fueled rebuilding the military.

“I intend to do the exact same thing to defeat radical Islamic terrorism, and to devote the resources from the booming economy to rebuilding our Navy, rebuilding our Air Force, rebuilding our Army and ensuring we have the capacity to keep this country safe.”

Cruz disputed moderator Chris Wallace’s suggesting that his language – particularly his pledge on the campaign trail to “carpet-bomb” ISIS has amounted to tough talk.

“I will apologize to nobody for the vigorousness with which I will fight terrorism, go after ISIS, hunt them down wherever they are, and utterly and completely destroy ISIS,” he said.

“It is not tough talk. It is a different, fundamental military strategy than what we’ve seen from Barack Obama,” Cruz said. “Barack Obama right now, number one, over seven years has dramatically degraded our military.”

He noted that when the Persian Gulf War began 25 years ago, the U.S. had 8,000 military aircraft.

“Today, we have about 4,000. When that war began, we had 529 ships. Today, we have 272.”

After contrasting the relatively small number of airstrikes being carried out against ISIS in Iraq and Syria now with the “1,100 air attacks a day” during the Gulf War, Cruz said, “We need to rebuild the military to defeat the enemy.”

“And we need to be focused and lift the rules of engagement so we’re not sending our fighting men and women into combat with their arms tied behind their backs,” he added.

Along similar lines, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush won applause later with a plea to “get the lawyers off the damn backs of the military once and for all,” to enable them to take on the job of destroying ISIS, with the help of Kurdish and Sunni partners.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, also in the context of the fight against ISIS, said “the Pentagon must be reformed, so we get what we need for our men and women in uniform.”

Also taking part in the debate were Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Entrepreneur and frontrunner Donald Trump boycotted the event amid disagreements with Fox News.

— Written by Patrick Goodenough