Opinion

DANTE RAMOS

Somehow, GOP debate gets deep on dictators

Senator Marco Rubio supported the idea of regime change.
Ruth Fremson/New York Times
Senator Marco Rubio supported the idea of regime change.

IT WAS a December miracle. Tuesday’s GOP presidential debate on foreign policy could have been sidetracked by front-runner Donald Trump’s trolly talk about temporarily barring Muslims from entering the United States and about fighting ISIS by shutting down parts of the Internet.

But somehow, the candidates — including Trump — stumbled into a thoughtful discussion about a deep issue: Is it better to overthrow dictators in the hope of spreading democracy, or put up with them for the sake of stability?

In the years after 9/11, then-president George W. Bush bet heavily on regime change, and the more establishment-friendly candidates struck similar notes in Tuesday’s debate. Marco Rubio and John Kasich supported the overthrow of Syrian leader Bashar Assad. “Anti-American dictators like Assad . . . if they go, I won’t shed a tear,” Rubio said. The main lesson Jeb Bush drew from recent experience in the Middle East was that the United States needs a “strategy to get in and a strategy to get out.”

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Yet two leading outsider candidates offered a starkly different analysis. “We need to learn from history,” said Ted Cruz, who likened US efforts to support moderate rebels in places like Libya and Syria to a search for a “purple unicorn.” Trump wished that the United States could have back the trillions of dollars it spent in Iraq. (Carly Fiorina, for one, seemed aghast at this apostasy, chiding Trump that his comment was like something that President Obama would say.)

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That portion of the debate highlighted the growing rivalry between Rubio and Cruz, the two candidates who appear best-positioned to profit if the months-long Trump boom ever subsides. Both senators are excellent debaters, and their one-on-one clashes — over immigration policy and National Security Agency surveillance — were among the tensest moments of the evening.

Meanwhile, after months of absorbing insults from Trump, Jeb Bush finally landed a few blows on his tormentor. “You’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency,” Bush told Trump at one point. “That’s not going to happen.”

But the real action was elsewhere. GOP voters got two main takeaways: a closer spotlight on Rubio and Cruz, and a reminder — in the discussion of regime change — of a widening philosophical dispute within the party.

Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @danteramos.