If This Were a Real World Election

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Columnist, The Cipher Brief

Fox News’ Chris Wallace has said as moderator, he plans to makeforeign hot spots” one of the 15-minute topics in tomorrow night’s final presidential debate.

This has been far from an ideal campaign, and the past two debates – or should we call them confrontations—between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have delivered more heat and less light on how each would deal with the serious foreign policy issues that will face the next president.

Without expecting any of these questions to be asked or answered, here are the ones I think voters would like Trump and Clinton to clear up, based on what they said in the last debate.

Hot spot: Syria

For Clinton: You are advocating a no-fly zone and safe zones. Define just what would be involved on the part of the U.S. and its allies – including forces in the air and on the ground, to protect areas and to make them secure from Syrian and Russian attacks.

In July 2013, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said it would be a major military undertaking, costing $500 million initially and as much as $1 billion per month over the course of a year. He also said it may fail to make a change on the ground, because the Assad forces rely on surface fire.

Would you seek congressional authorization to use American armed forces that will have to strike at Syrian government targets, something normally considered an act of war? Assuming safe zones were successfully established, what happens next?

For Trump: At the October 9 debate, you said Aleppo was lost and that “Syria is no longer Syria. Syria is Russia and it’s Iran.” You also said Assad forces and the Russians in Syria were fighting ISIS [the Islamic State] and implied if you were president, you would no longer support any anti-Assad forces. Instead, you would join with the Russians, Iranians, and the Assad regime in fighting ISIS.

Would that be your policy for Syria? And if the Assad regime, supported by Russian and Iranian military forces, attempted to regain control over all of Syria, would you stand aside and let that happen?

Hot spot: Iraq

For Trump: At the last debate you criticized the Obama administration for giving advance notice of the attack, which is now underway. You said, “Why can’t they do it quietly? Why can’t they do the attack, make it a sneak attack, and after the attack is made, inform the American public that we’ve knocked out the leaders, we’ve had a tremendous success?”

What kind of “sneak attack” on ISIS leaders – who it should be noted were always in Raqqa, Syria and never located in Mosul – could take such a large city? It has more than one million people.  ISIS has run it for more than two years with some 4,000 of its jihadist fighters present. They have built defensive trenches and planted booby traps. What size forces—U.S., Iraqi, or Kurd—did you have in mind that could carry out such an attack?

You have said in the past, you know more than American generals about ISIS, but a reported force of 30,000 Iraqi Arabs and Kurds has been assembled and trained for the job, along with U.S. and allied forces, for a fight that could take weeks or months.

Do you believe it could have been done with fewer troops on the ground and more quickly? More important, what is your plan for holding and helping rebuild the city after ISIS is defeated?

Hot spot: Russia

For Clinton: You said on October 9, “Our intelligence community just came out and said in the last few days that the Kremlin, meaning Putin and the Russian government, are directing the attacks, the hacking on American accounts to influence our election. And WikiLeaks is part of that, as are other sites where the Russians hack information, we don’t even know if it’s accurate information, and then they put it out.”

What steps would you take, were you president today, to deter Russia from its pattern of hacking and releasing information, which you say represents “an adversary, a foreign power is working so hard to influence the outcome of the election.”

For Trump: At the last debate, despite your being briefed by intelligence analysts and after Director of National Intelligence James Clapper publicly identified Russia as doing the hacking, you said Secretary Clinton “doesn’t know if it’s the Russians doing the hacking,” and then added, “Maybe there is no hacking. But they always blame Russia. And the reason they blame Russia because they think they’re trying to tarnish me with Russia.”

Sunday, on NBC’s Meet the Press, your own running mate, Gov. Mike Pence, agreed, saying, “there is more and more evidence implicating Russia.”

Do you not trust the U.S. intelligence community determination – as President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Gov. Pence apparently do – that the Russians are behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s emails?

You said at that debate, “I know nothing about Russia. I know – I know about Russia, but I know nothing about the inner workings of Russia.”

You have advisors who are very familiar with Russia, including Gen. Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Has he not spoken to you about Russia and Russian cyber and intelligence capabilities?

I have one more question for Trump not directly from the last debate.

On October 10, at your Trump rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, you said that “sleazy Sidney” was “now admitting they could have done something about Benghazi. This just came out a little while ago.” You claimed the GOP could use this as a talking point that “she [Secretary Clinton] is now admitting [in the hacked email] that they could have done something about Benghazi.”

Did you realize you were reading from a report by Sputnik, a Russian-controlled news agency that was misinterpreting one of the hacked emails. The phrase attributed to Sidney Blumenthal was actually written in a long, analytical piece in Newsweek by Kurt Eichenwald?

Did you know by the time you made your statement at the Wilkes-Barre rally falsely accusing Blumenthal of the quote, Sputnik had already deleted the story from its website after Eichenwald published a blog saying he, not Blumenthal, wrote the phrase you quoted?

Do you owe Blumenthal, or anyone you mistakenly attack, an apology?

Do you at least acknowledge what you read and then repeated about Blumenthal was wrong?

I doubt voters will ever hear the answers to questions such as these, but if this were a real world election, they might have had a chance. Of course it is not.

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a Columnist and the Senior National Security Reporter at The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.  He can be reached at [email protected]

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