There were a lot of clashes in the Houston Republican debate on Thursday night, with Marco Rubio grabbing headlines for the skillful way in which he exposed Donald Trump’s hypocrisy on illegal immigration and his lack of policy specifics. But just as telling in a way was the one subject on which three of the four candidates — Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kaisch — agreed: their support for dictators.

All three were unanimous in their praise for Muammar Gaddafi, the man who Ronald Reagan once called the “mad dog of the Middle East.”

John Kasich: “Libya didn’t go down because there was some people revolution. Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power all these other people convinced the president to undermine Gaddafi. They undermined him and now they have created a cesspool in Libya.”

Ted Cruz: “The Obama/Clinton policy of toppling the government in Libya… was a disaster. It gave the country over to radical Islamic terrorism and it endangered America.”

Donald Trump: “We would be so much better off if Gaddafi were in charge right now.”

The only real difference between these three was over who was more pro-Gaddafi. Cruz accused Trump and Rubio of siding with Obama in overthrowing the Libyan dictator. Trump indignantly denied the charge (“He said I was in favor of Libya? I never discussed that subject”), and in the process lied through his teeth for the umpteenth time.

In fact, in 2011 Trump was agitating for an intervention: “I can’t believe what our country is doing,” Trump said at the time. “Gaddafi in Libya is killing thousands of people, nobody knows how bad it is, and we’re sitting around we have soldiers all have the Middle East, and we’re not bringing them in to stop this horrible carnage and that’s what it is: It’s a carnage… Now we should go in, we should stop this guy, which would be very easy and very quick. We could do it surgically, stop him from doing it, and save these lives. This is absolutely nuts. We don’t want to get involved and you’re gonna end up with something like you’ve never seen before.”

Trump was right then, wrong now. As Marco Rubio (whose campaign I advise on foreign policy) pointed out last night: “We didn’t topple Gaddafi, the Libyan people toppled Gaddafi.” Indeed, American failure to intervene would not necessarily have meant that Qaddafi would have crushed the revolt and stayed in power. The U.S. didn’t intervene in Syria, and Bashar Assad hasn’t had any success in stopping the revolt against him. It’s resulted in a bloodbath that has given rise to radical groups such as ISIS.

The real mistake the U.S. made in Libya was not in intervening but in failing to follow up afterward, as I and others warned at the time. Senator Rubio was one of those prescient voices warning about a power vacuum that could develop if the war continued too long and if the Obama administration did not prepare for the aftermath. That advice was ignored, and the result is the disaster you see today. That shouldn’t make us nostalgic for the days of good ole Gaddafi who, even after he gave up his weapons of mass destruction in 2004, continued to sponsor insurgencies in states such as Mali and to turn a blind eye to Libyan jihadists traveling to Iraq to fight U.S. troops. He was certainly no ally of America, as Trump and Cruz would like to pretend.

In spite of his previous advocacy for overthrowing Gaddafi, Trump got so carried away in his paean to the dictator that he added in a tribute to Saddam Hussein, too. “At least they killed terrorists, all right?” Trump said. Which is Orwellian doublespeak because only dictators refer to all of their enemies as “terrorists.” Objectively speaking most of those they kill are innocent victims.

Take Saddam (whose overthrow Trump also once supported). A partial list of his war crimes would include invading Iran in 1980, triggering a war that killed an estimated 1 million Iranians and as many as 500,000 Iraqis; the al-Anfal chemical-weapons campaign in 1988, which killed at least 100,000 Kurds; invading Kuwait in 1990, triggering a war that killed as many as 35,000 Iraqis, more than 1,000 Kuwaitis, and 292 coalition soldiers; a campaign to put down a Shiite rebellion in 1991 that killed more than 100,000 people; and routine persecution of internal “enemies” during his many years in power that resulted in some 200,000 Iraqis disappearing into the hands of the secret police, never to be heard from again.

It is simply obscene that Trump is labeling Saddam’s victims as “terrorists.” But it is all too typical of the mindset of so many of today’s leading Republicans. They seem to have over-reacted to what they see as the excesses of George W. Bush’s pro-democracy agenda and have opted to embrace dictatorships as the best alternative. This is simplistic and dangerous thinking. It’s true that the U.S. shouldn’t go around willy-nilly overthrowing dictatorships — but it shouldn’t go around willy-nilly embracing them either. In the case of Syria, for example, where both Cruz and Trump agree that we should support Bashar Assad, that policy actually empowers ISIS by driving more Sunnis into its camp.

Ronald Reagan understood the value of democracy promotion — he pushed for democratic reforms in American allies such as South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, and El Salvador, because he understood that governments that have the support of their people make for more dependable allies. He also understood that backing dictators like Somoza or the Shah could backfire, resulting in revolutions that produced anti-American governments. The only candidate on the campaign trail today who espouses that Reaganite approach is Marco Rubio — and he’s getting nothing but grief from his competitors for his unwillingness to embrace genocidal tyrants. That speaks volumes about the moral and intellectual decay of the modern Republican Party.

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