Among many other landmarks, the 2016 GOP primary may be remembered as the contest that made it not only acceptable, but politically advantageous, to advocate for committing war crimes.
The most recent example came in Saturday’s debate, when front-runner Donald Trump argued that because “In the Middle East, we have people chopping the heads off Christians” and other “things that we have never seen before,” it is necessary to “bring back waterboarding” and “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” No one’s denying ISIS’s cruelty, but why past American enemies—Nazi Germany, say—didn’t meet Trump’s torture threshold is a little unclear. Trump stood by his stance on the Sunday shows but declined to say what “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” meant or make clear how he would get around recent laws passed by Congress banning these techniques. On Monday, Trump’s son Eric usefully contributed his observation about waterboarding, which “quite frankly is no different than what happens on college campuses in frat houses every day.”
The common stance of Republican candidates is a variation on Dick Cheney’s argument that the U.S. does not torture prisoners and that techniques the U.S. has used in the war on terror, such as waterboarding, are not torture—they are enhanced interrogation techniques. We’ve heard versions of this argument from Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush. Trump, who says the U.S. must do “frankly unthinkable” things to defeat ISIS, is unbothered by such distinctions, though. In the past, he has openly, and positively, used the T-word to describe old U.S. interrogation techniques, arguing that, “As soon as the next attack happens, everyone’s going to want to go back to the torture.”
Trump is likely happy to be talking about torture again, because it’s the rare issue on which rival Ted Cruz is relatively moderate, compared even to “establishment” candidates like Rubio and Bush. The senator, who has talked about his father’s torture by Fidel Castro’s regime, has said that “Torture is wrong, unambiguously. Period. The end,” and something that only “bad guys” engage in. On Saturday, Cruz wiggled out of that position a little bit saying that waterboarding is “enhanced interrogation” rather than torture, but still said he “would not bring it back in any sort of widespread use” and pointed out that he had co-sponsored legislation with John McCain to restrict its use.
Of course, in an election where the foreign policy debate has often been a competition to espouse the most bloodthirsty rhetoric rather than bring any new ideas to the table, Cruz has found other over-the-top and probably illegal activities for which to advocate. His promise to “carpet-bomb ISIS into oblivion,” meaning to bomb an area without distinguishing between military and civilian targets, would violate both U.S. military guidelines and international humanitarian law. (To be fair, it is quite possible that Cruz doesn’t actually know, or care, what carpet bombing means.)
Further down in the polls, other candidates have tried to make clear to voters that they too are open to ideas that, in other settings, might earn a head of state a trip to the Hague. Jeb Bush has promised to “Get the lawyers off the damn backs of the military once and for all.” Ben Carson has described the killing of civilians, including children, as “merciful.” These statements might have garnered a lot of attention if these candidates weren’t running against a man who openly advocates for killing the families of ISIS members. Instead, they seem almost quaint.