It may have been the weirdest exchange of Sunday’s entire debate.
Donald Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, had said just days earlier that the US should be prepared to bomb Syrian military targets to help protect residents of the besieged city of Aleppo. Moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC asked Trump if he agreed. Trump, without missing a beat, calmly threw Pence under the bus.
“He and I haven't spoken, and I disagree,” Trump said.
Bombing forces loyal to Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad would be a mistake, Trump argued, because Assad is “killing ISIS.” Trump didn’t explicitly say that he was siding with Assad in Syria’s brutal civil war, but that was the clear implication. Trump didn’t seem even remotely bothered by the fact that Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people and presides over a military that has killed tens of thousands of Syrian civilians and driven millions more from their home.
Anyone still wondering how a President Trump would handle the world should pay close attention to the exchange about Syria, which offers a near-perfect distillation of his core beliefs. Warm words for dictators? Check. Turning a blind eye to rampant human rights abuses? Check. A startling lack of basic knowledge about current events on the ground? Check. The belief that he knows more about military strategy than the military itself? Check again.
Syria is the great humanitarian challenge of our age. There are no easy ways of making it better, but there are some easy ways of making it worse. And, based on Trump’s answer, it seems like he would plan on trying all of them.
Trump has no idea what’s happening in Aleppo
Since early September, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson has been raked over the coals for not knowing what the Syrian city of Aleppo is. Aleppo is perhaps the most important battlefield in Syria today; Assad’s forces, backed by Russia, are bombarding the rebel-held part of the city where about 250,000 people are rapidly running out of food, water, and medicine. Johnson not knowing it was widely seen as evidence that he’s too ignorant to be trusted to be commander in chief.
In Sunday’s debate, Donald Trump said something that’s basically just as bad.
Moderator Martha Raddatz repeatedly pressed Trump on what he’d do about the situation in the city. Trump repeatedly refused to answer. Raddatz, clearly annoyed, decided to shift the question a bit — asking him what would happen if Assad took the city of Aleppo. Trump’s response? To say Aleppo had “already fallen,” which is untrue, and then ramble about the Iraqi city of Mosul (currently held by ISIS):
RADDATZ: What do you think will happen if Aleppo falls.
TRUMP: It is a disaster.
RADDATZ: What do you think will happen if it falls?
TRUMP: I think it basically has fallen.
Let me tell you something. You take a look at Mosul. The biggest problem I have with the stupidity of our foreign policy, we have Mosul. We have … coming out of Washington and Iraq, we will be attacking Mosul in three or four weeks. All of these bad leaders from ISIS are leaving Mosul. Why can't they do it quietly?
To recap: Trump is saying that Aleppo has fallen, when it obviously hasn’t. The city remains in the news solely because of the mounting global concerns for the safety of the hundreds of thousands of people still trapped inside Aleppo. Trump clearly doesn’t understand the basic contours of what’s happening in the city, let alone have a coherent policy for alleviating the suffering there.
The confusion spread when he began talking about Mosul, which has literally nothing to do with Aleppo. Mosul is held by ISIS; ISIS has no significant role in the battle for Aleppo, which is mostly defined by rebel groups battling the Assad regime. Moreover, the United States is helping coordinate the offensive against Mosul, but isn’t directly involved in the Aleppo fight (which is the whole point of Raddatz’s question). Answering a question about Aleppo by talking about US military operations in Mosul is a little like answering a question about Israel by talking about Afghanistan.
This isn’t just ignorance — it’s extreme ignorance. But it’s deeply revealing all the same. Because while Trump may not have a coherent answer about the fight for Aleppo, he’s crystal clear about who he wants to come out on top.
Trump loves Assad and Putin
One of the biggest knocks on Trump’s foreign policy is that he admires dictators, even murderous ones. Pence spent much of his debate against Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, trying to muddy the waters and argue otherwise.
But Trump’s answers on Syria Sunday night proved that Pence was wrong to even try to mount a defense. The real estate mogul was perfectly happy to praise the leaders of Russia, Syria, and Iran as allies in the fight against ISIS:
I don't like Assad at all but Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS. And Iran is killing ISIS … I believe we have to get ISIS. We have to worry about ISIS before we can get too much more involved.
This is mostly wrong as a matter of fact: Assad and Russia aren’t really fighting ISIS. Assad has mostly left ISIS alone, focusing his military on anti-government “moderate” rebels. Russian airstrikes have overwhelmingly focused on said rebels rather than ISIS. And although Iranian-backed militias are certainly fighting ISIS in Iraq, the ones who are pouring into Syria are there to help Assad maintain control over his war-shattered country, not fight ISIS.
But more importantly, it’s morally wrong.
One of Assad’s favorite weapons is the barrel bomb, a crude device dropped from helicopters as a means of killing and wounding anyone unlucky enough to be in its path. It’s a weapon designed to maim and terrorize, and it’s brutally effective at both.
At least 400,000 people are thought to have died in Syria’s civil war, and you can lay a lot of the blame for the carnage at the feet of Assad and his allies. To argue that the Syrian dictator and his supporters are useful allies in the fight against ISIS, which they honestly don’t care about, is intellectually vacuous and morally grotesque.
It also speaks to a fundamental problem with Trump’s judgment. The man talks obsessively about the purportedly existential threat posed by radical Islamic terrorists, which seems to supersede the commitment to basic liberal-democratic values we expect from American politicians. Trump also has repeatedly praised Vladimir Putin as a “strong leader” he can work with, shrugging off criticisms of the Russian president’s human rights record.
Trump’s analysis of the situation is thus very simple: ISIS bad, Putin strong, therefore take Putin’s side. On Sunday night, Trump made clear that he would be happy to take Assad’s side, as well.
Trump thinks with his gut — and his gut likes people who don’t particularly care about human rights. That appears to have come as quite a shock to Mike Pence. It shouldn’t have.