The first Republican presidential debate held in Wisconsin on Wednesday night featured wide-ranging discussions on the national security threat posed by China, the continued American involvement in Ukraine, and the possibility of sending more active duty troops to the U.S. border with Mexico to help with immigration work.

Below are excerpts of the major points of discussion on military personnel and foreign policy priorities from the candidates:

Military deployments to the U.S. southern border

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis: “I’m not going to send troops to Ukraine — I’m going to send them to our southern border. When these drug pushers are bringing fentanyl across the border, that’s going to be the last thing they do. We’re going to use force and we’re going to leave them stone cold dead.”

Moderator: “So as president, would you support sending U.S. special forces over the border into Mexico to take out fentanyl labs to take out drug cartel operations?”

Desantis: “Yes. And I will do it on day one. Here’s the thing. The cartels are killing tens of thousands of our fellow citizens … We have to re-establish the rule of law, and we have to defend our people. The president of the United States has got to use all available powers as commander-in-chief to protect our country and to protect the people. So, when they’re coming across, yes, we’re going to use lethal force. Yes, we reserve the right to operate.”

Former Vice President Pence: “We got the Mexicans to deploy their National Guard to our southern border as never before. And I want to promise you as president of the United States of America, I will engage Mexico the exact same way. We will partner with the Mexican military, and we will hunt down and destroy the cartels that are claiming lives in the United States.”

Moderator: “Would you authorize lethal force along [the southern U.S.] border?

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson: “Lethal force used by Border Patrol law enforcement as needed to protect the border? Absolutely. But when you look at the military, the military has to be used for intelligence gathering purposes …

“We cannot be successful going against the [drug] cartels unless we bring in Mexico as a partner. We have to use economic pressure to accomplish that. [Mexican President Andrés Manuel López] Obrador has not been helpful, and we have to use economic pressure that this administration is not using. The rule of law has to matter on both sides. This is critical. The military has to be limited in its use.”

Mandatory military service

Moderator: “Governor DeSantis, as President, would you support some mandatory military service for all Americans?

Desantis: “I think it should be voluntary. I’m somebody that volunteered to serve inspired by Sept. 11. And I deployed to Iraq, alongside U.S. Navy SEALs in places like Ramadi, and it’s something that I think has taught me that when you go in that type of environment, anything you have your personal agenda, you check it at the door.

“You go there and it’s about focusing on the mission, above all else, and guys come together and they get it done. And that’s how I would view being the president of the United States.”

A Ukrainian soldier covers his ears while firing a mortar at Russian positions on the frontline near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Monday, May 29, 2023.


Pence: “Anybody that thinks that we can’t solve problems here in the United States and be the leader of the free world has a pretty small view of the greatest nation on Earth. We’ve done both. We’ve been the leader of the free world and the arsenal of democracy for years.

“The Reagan Doctrine years ago made it clear we said if you’re willing to fight the communists on your soil, we’ll give you the means to fight it there, so our troops don’t have to fight. If we give Putin this land, it’s not going to be too long before he rolls across a NATO border. And frankly, our men and women of our armed forces are going to have to go and fight him. I want to let the Ukrainians fight and drive through him and have the Russians back down.”

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley: “The American president needs to have moral clarity. They need to know the difference between right and wrong. They need to know the difference between good and evil. When you look at the situation with Russia and Ukraine, here you have a pro-American country that was invaded by a thug.

“So when you want to talk about what has been given to Ukraine, less than 3.5% of our defense budget has been given to Ukraine … We have to know that Ukraine is the first line of defense for us.”

Desantis: “I will have Europe pull their weight [in Ukraine]. Now they’re not doing it now. I think our support should be contingent on them doing it.”

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie: “I went to Ukraine because I wanted to see for myself what Vladimir Putin’s army was doing to free Ukrainian people. I want you all to look around this arena tonight and imagine that every one of these seats was filled. And if every one of them was filled, there would still be 2,500 more children outside to make the over 20,000 who have been abducted, stolen, ripped from their mothers and fathers and brought back to Russia to be programmed to fight their own families.

“They have gouged out people’s eyes, cut off their ears and shot people in the back of the head. They’re gone into those homes and raped the daughters and the wives who were left as widows and orphans. This is the same Vladimir Putin who Donald Trump called brilliant and a genius. If we don’t stand up against this type of autocratic killing we will be next.”

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy: “The reality is that today, [Ukraine] is not a priority for the United States of America. And I think that the same people who took us into the Iraq War, the same people who took us into the Vietnam War, you cannot end it. You’re not starting another no-win war.

“And I do not want to get to the point where we’re sending our military resources abroad when we could be better using them here at home to protect our own borders. protect the homeland. That will be my top priority for protecting this homeland.”

In this photo provided by the U.S. Navy, the guided-missile destroyer Chung-Hoon observes a Chinese navy ship conduct what it called an "unsafe” Chinese maneuver in the Taiwan Strait, Saturday, June 3, 2023.


Moderator: “Mr. Ramaswamy, you would not support an increase of funding to Ukraine?”

Ramaswamy: “I would not … we are driving further into China’s hands. The Russia-China alliance is the single greatest threat we face.

“The USSR does not exist anymore. The real threat we face today is Communist China, and we are driving Russia further into China’s arms. The Russia-China military alliance is the single greatest threat we face. Nobody in either political party is talking about it.”

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum: “The Biden administration is a complete fail … What we need to do is not have more meetings, not press releases. Something that would send a lot more of a message than a press release is actually harpoon missiles. We need anti-ship missiles on Taiwan.

“The way that you have a war that never starts, which is the goal, the way you have peace through strength is that you actually have strength. You actually have deterrence.”

Christie: “On this fentanyl issue with China: We can’t take our eye off of that ball. Yes, it’s important that we secure the [southern] border, very important. But China is sending these chemicals to these drug cartels for them to create the fentanyl that is killing hundreds of thousands of our citizens.

“The Chinese are engaging in an act of war against us, killing our citizens. We better make that priority one in our conversations with China and to try to straighten that relationship out. Because if we don’t, we’re going to lose more and more of our citizens.”

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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