Trump’s Statements: More than Just Words Abroad

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Columnist, The Cipher Brief

What presidential candidate Donald Trump says on the spur of the moment about foreign events – without understanding, or perhaps caring about its impact overseas — can create serious and potentially dangerous situations for Americans abroad.

Take Trump’s outlandish claim on August 10th that President Obama was “the founder of ISIS,” which he repeated several times after it drew cheers from the crowd during a rally at Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

Two days later, Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the militant Hezbollah group, cited Trump’s claim before a crowd of his supporters in southern Lebanon as justifying what he and other Shia leaders, including Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, had been saying for years — that the United States, in order to destabilize the Middle East, had secretly created and supported the Sunni-led, Islamic State [ISIS] terrorist group.

Nasrallah pointed out that Trump, “is an American presidential candidate who is saying this,” and “what he says is based on facts and documents.” It made no difference that Trump tried to back away from his words two days later by saying they were “sarcasm.”

Last Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden said Trump’s false claim that Obama founded ISIS was creating a real threat to U.S. personnel in the Middle East.

During a talk he was making on behalf of Hillary Clinton in Warren, Ohio, Biden said that Iran’s Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi Shia militants, who “are trying to influence what happens in Iraq,” have, after Trump’s remarks, been promoting an “urban legend going on in Iraq saying that the United States supports ISIS.” 

Biden added, “If people believe we are supporting ISIS, what do you think happens to our kids in these countries?”

The result: “Precautionary steps had to be taken to make sure that Shia militia in Iraq do not attack American troops or the American Embassy,” Biden said.

Biden also told his audience he had just returned from an emergency visit to Riga, Latvia, where he had to clean up another mess created by Trump’s offhand remarks.

Back on July 20, Trump, in an interview with the New York Times, had said that if he were president and Russia threatened the tiny Baltic nations he would decide whether to support these NATO allies only after seeing “if they fulfill their obligations to us.”

Biden said his “emergency visit” to Riga was to reassure the president of that country, as well as the presidents of Lithuania and Estonia “that Donald Trump didn’t represent America.”

”They’re scared to death with good reason that Russia will cross the border and annex them like they did Crimea,” Biden said. “And what’s Donald Trump say? These are members of NATO. He said we’re going to check whether they’ve paid all their dues. He’s causing — for the first time, with Bush or Clinton or Obama, for the first time he’s causing nations to actually wonder whether or not we’ll keep our word.”

Biden also recalled Trump’s stated admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin, adding that Trump “is the guy who doesn’t know that Russian troops have already come across the border and annexed Crimea” and “the guy who guarantees that Putin is not going to invade a country [Ukraine] who he’s already invaded.”

Biden could have added that Putin may have been the first foreign leader to imply that Obama armed ISIS.  Two years ago, at the Valdai International Discussion Club’s XI conference in Sochi, Russia, the Russian president cited American sponsorship of “Islamic extremists” who came to Afghanistan to fight Soviet Union troops there as the beginnings of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Putin described that he had earlier said when President Obama described ISIS as a threat asking rhetorically, “Well who on earth armed them?’ – meaning the U.S.

Ironically there were more Putin remarks from his 2014 talk at Sochi that were later reflected in some positions taken by Trump during the current presidential campaign.

Putin almost two years ago talked about how “the so-called ‘victors’ in the Cold War [meaning the U.S. and its allies] had decided to pressure events and reshape the world to suit their own needs and interests.” Washington was “meddling in events all around the world,” Putin said, “instead of settling conflicts…leads to their escalation. Instead of sovereign and stable states we see the growing spread of chaos, and instead of democracy there is support for a very dubious public ranging from open neo-fascists to Islamic radicals.”

Trump, in his April 27, 2016 foreign policy speech in Washington went down a path similar to Putin.

“Since the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union,” Trump said, “we’ve lacked a coherent foreign policy. One day, we’re bombing Libya and getting rid of a dictator to foster democracy for civilians. The next day, we’re watching the same civilians suffer while that country falls and absolutely falls apart. Lives lost, massive monies lost.”

Putin at Sochi voiced support for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi saying, “Only the current Egyptian leadership’s determination and wisdom saved this key Arab country from chaos and having extremists run rampant.”

In a speech last month in Youngstown, Ohio, Trump, in a similarly phrased response said, “[Clinton] helped force out a friendly regime in Egypt [long-time Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak] and replace it with the radical Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian military has retaken control, but Clinton has opened the Pandora’s box of radical Islam.” He added that if he became president he would “partner with…President Al-Sisi.”

Trump, with his new top team of advisors, has recently refocused his attention on domestic affairs. His speech to the American Legion convention last Thursday in Cincinnati hardly mentioned foreign affairs and dealt primarily with domestic issues, including reforms for the Veteran’s Administration and plans to “start celebrating America” with emphasis on saluting the flag and having young Americans recite the pledge of allegiance every day in school.

As in the past Trump repeated his call for rebuilding “our depleted military…destroying ISIS and radical Islamic terrorism…and we want this mission to be accomplished quickly.” He also called for an end  to nation building abroad.

Perhaps Trump, or at least his staff, is now paying attention to what his words might mean to audiences outside the U.S.

Hillary Clinton, who spoke last Wednesday to the Legion, used her time to add some details to her defense and foreign policy agenda.

She called for an end of the sequester, the arbitrary caps on the entire government that Congress approved in the 2011 Budget Control Act, and to “get a budget deal that supports America’s military, our families, and our country.”

She promised “a renewed push to reduce the world’s nuclear weapons” and said, “One of the first things I will do as president, is to call for a new nuclear posture review. We have to make sure that America’s arsenal is prepared to meet future threats.”

Referring to recent cyber attacks by Russia and China, Clinton said as president she “will treat cyber attacks just like any other attack. We will be ready with serious political, economic and military responses. And we’re going to invest in protecting our governmental networks and our national infrastructure. I want us to lead the world in setting the rules of cyberspace.”

As for jihadist terrorism, she said, “We can’t contain ISIS – we must defeat them, and we will. We will do whatever is necessary for as long as it takes to bring them to justice, and end their reign of terror once and for all.”

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 wpincus@thecipherbrief.com.

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