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Should U.S. tolerate foreign dictators? Issue splits Republican candidates

Several top Republican presidential candidates have begun arguing that the United States should embrace, or at least tolerate, old-fashioned dictators — a sharp split from the professed policy of the GOP in the George W. Bush administration.

At a time when voters are anxious about violent extremism, but still queasy about using American troops overseas, Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are suggesting that America is sometimes better off leaving strongmen in place to help preserve order abroad, rather than ousting them to try to make their countries more democratic.

Trump and Cruz have gone so far as to argue that the country would be safer if former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and former Libyan boss Moammar Kadafi — ousted in large part by U.S. force — were still around. Both autocrats headed military governments that were infamous for human rights abuses and other repressive policies.

"I don't believe we should be trying to transform foreign countries into democratic utopias," Cruz, of Texas, said recently.

Their statements have set off a noisy debate within the GOP between those who advocate acceptance of dictators and those whose views are closer to the neoconservative approach of President George W. Bush — including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

All administrations — including that of George W. Bush — have cooperated with repressive governments, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The Obama administration helped rebels oust Kadafi in a NATO air campaign in 2011. But the White House works closely with Saudi rulers and has tried to repair relations with the leaders who took power in Cairo after Obama withdrew support from Hosni Mubarak, the country's longtime strongman, during the "Arab Spring" uprisings in 2011.

On the Republican side, a long-running argument has raged between neoconservatives and so-called realists, who are more willing to tolerate repressive governments if they advance American interests and preserve stability.

Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and former President George H.W. Bush are often described as realists. Many key advisors to George W. Bush were in the neoconservative camp.

The turmoil in the Middle East "has also put a lot of wind in the sails of the neocons," said Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of the National Interest foreign policy magazine and author of a book on neoconservatism. "So this debate is really simmering."

Trump has been the most unequivocal in his position, saying last week that the world would be "100%" better off if Kadafi and Hussein were still in power.

Iraq under Hussein had no terrorists, he said, and now it's "the Harvard of terrorists."

"I'm not saying he was a nice guy — he was a horrible guy. But [Iraq] was a lot better than it is now," Trump said.

Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, some Bush administration officials implied that Hussein had links to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. That was false, but an Al Qaeda spinoff took root during the anti-American insurgency and ultimately gave rise to Islamic State, the Sunni Muslim extremist group that now controls much of Syria and Iraq.

Carson has said he wouldn't have invaded Iraq because Hussein didn't pose an "existential threat" to the United States. At the time, the Bush administration argued that Hussein was stockpiling vast arsenals of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, but that too proved inaccurate.

Carson also has said he might not have sent U.S. troops into Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks, though he was ready to use other kinds of armed force, such as drones, against the Taliban.

Carson "seems to be tiptoeing in the same direction as Trump," Heilbrunn said.

Paul, the Kentucky libertarian, was the first GOP candidate in the race to take a strong stand against interventions to oust foreign governments.

Some evangelical Christians, who play an influential role in Republican politics, have expressed support for allowing another dictator, Syria's President Bashar Assad, to remain in power because he has protected the country's Christian minority.

Christians in Syria have come under repeated attacks by Sunni militants in Syria's civil war, now in its fifth year. Obama has called on Assad to step down to help end the country's crisis.

Some conservative analysts suggest that the neoconservative approach is closer to the heart of Republican politics.

They point out that Trump is an outlier in many ways in the Republican field and that Carson seems to have given little thought to several aspects of foreign policy.

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"His foreign policy seems to be a work in progress," said Marc Thiessen, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Polls show Republican have turned more hawkish recently because of concerns about the rise of Islamic State and Russian President Vladimir Putin's aggressive moves in Ukraine and Syria, and because of their perception that Obama's caution has led to an increase of threats to America.

But the candidates and the public are struggling because results of recent U.S. military interventions have been uneven, at best. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan remain unresolved, and Libya has fractured since Kadafi's ouster.

Peter Feaver, a political scientist and former aide to President George W. Bush, says the candidates are trying to make a tough choice between Bush's model and the earlier realist approach because "there's a sense that what's been tried hasn't worked so far.... They're trying all the possible treatments: grandma's remedy and the latest drug."

The presidential hopefuls are trying to get a fix on the views of voters who want to protect American interests, but are wary of becoming mired in another overseas ground war.

The candidates are "nervous about how far to go," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), another presidential contender, said in an interview with the New Yorker magazine. "They're trying to figure out where the market is — where's the sweet spot?"

paul.richter@latimes.com

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