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National defense and the security of the American people are among the few duties the federal government is explicitly entrusted to perform, and it’s rightly become a focal point of the presidential primary campaign.

The U.S. faces threats around the globe, including ISIS, a bullish Russia, a North Korea that’s testing nuclear weapons and an empowered Iran. The stakes couldn’t be much higher.

The next commander in chief must engage the U.S. in international conflicts without being the world’s policeman. America must protect its people, its national interests and its allies. But the next president must also be a realist with a full understanding of the costs of war — and the judgment to discern the best strategy for each conflict.

In the GOP race, all candidates agree the military must be rebuilt. General disdain for Obama’s foreign policy has Republican candidates rightly campaigning for a return to “peace through strength.”

But defense doesn’t require more spending as much as it requires a realignment of priorities to reduce waste and redirect savings into modernization. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, perhaps because of their experience managing budgets, have both identified Pentagon reform as a priority in strengthening the military. That’s something that must happen.

Bush, who has surrounded himself with some of the best advisers, proposes a Middle East strategy that includes a no-fly zone in Syria, embedding U.S. soldiers with the Iraqi military, offering support to the Kurds and placing combat troops in Syria. It’s a well-rounded approach that could succeed.

Kasich, who served almost two decades on the Congressional Armed Services Committee, offers a similar Middle East strategy, except that he would arm the opposition in Syria, but keep U.S. troops out of the country’s civil war.

Kasich would also arm the Ukranians to push back against Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Bush calls for more robust military exercises in Eastern Europe to intimidate Putin. Both strategies would work better than Obama’s economic sanctions have thus far.

Both candidates are also measured in their response to the Iran nuclear deal. Kasich says he would try to act within the framework, and Bush says he wouldn’t necessarily rescind the deal right away — both pragmatic approaches to a bad deal.

Republican front-runner Donald Trump hangs his foreign policy hat on his ability to make outstanding deals. He rightly derides the poor return Obama got for the U.S. in the Iran deal.

Trump, who accuses former President George W. Bush of lying about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is right to point out that ISIS has thrived in the vacuum formed by the Iraq War, but it also has benefited from the Obama administration’s neglect in that country and paralysis in Syria.

Sen. Ted Cruz is the only GOP candidate who doesn’t say ground troops in the region is the right call. ISIS must be destroyed, and air power won’t be enough to do that.

Cruz, too, is against the Iran deal, but his pledge to repeal it on Day One is naive and very likely not possible without the support of our allies.

Cruz joins Kasich in arguing the U.S. has no place overthrowing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and it should stay out of the country’s civil war.

Sen. Marco Rubio, perhaps the most hawkish of GOP candidates, wants to increase military spending and rebuild America’s fleet. His time on the Congressional Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees gives him a good understanding of the threats.

He says he’d support the Syrian rebels and have some level of involvement in a post-Assad Syria, which would drag the U.S. into another costly nation-building effort.

In the Democratic primary, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is making a case for her deep experience in foreign affairs. But her record is one of timid intervention and a blundering strategy throughout the Middle East.

Her resume is overshadowed by her demonstrated poor judgment regarding classified information. And while she helped direct the overthrow of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, the absence of a “what next?” Libya strategy left that nation in chaos.

As for Bernie Sanders, he is the most isolationist of all the candidates — a position the United States can ill afford at a time of so many threats from so many places.

Second of six

This is the second in an occasional series examining issues in the upcoming presidential primary election. More in the opinion section of detroitnews.com

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