One reason Indiana Gov. Mike Pence did as well as he did in Tuesday’s debate was that he frequently denied (or refused to defend) Donald Trump’s outrageous comments. In response to direct quotes, Pence insisted that Trump never said these things and insisted that Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) was talking “nonsense.” At one point, he suggested that “if Donald Trump had said all of the things that you’ve said he said in the way you said he said them, he still wouldn’t have a fraction of the insults that Hillary Clinton leveled when she said that half of our supporters were a basket of deplorables.” Does Pence not believe the audio and video of Trump’s numerous remarks, or was he just lying to get through a debate? Surely he knows better.
More important to his success Tuesday night was Pence’s very own foreign policy. Trump deeply admires Vladimir Putin. Just as President Obama thinks that he can revamp the U.S.-Iran relationship in the face of all evidence to the contrary, Trump imagines that Russia can be our friend and take care of the Islamic State in Syria. He has no interest in taking out Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Trump, you recall, didn’t think Russia had invaded Ukraine and has been silent on the shoot-down of a civilian airline and the bombing of an aid convoy — both of which have been attributed to Russia. He wants to leave the Ukraine problem to the Europeans. Trump wasn’t upset by Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee; in fact, he invited Putin to find Clinton’s missing emails.
Pence has a much sounder view. He criticized “the newly emboldened — the aggression of Russia,” something Trump never acknowledges. There was this remarkable answer on Russia and Syria:
The United States of America needs to begin to exercise strong leadership to protect the vulnerable citizens and over 100,000 children in Aleppo. Hillary Clinton’s top priority when she became secretary of state was the Russian reset, the Russians reset. After the Russian reset, the Russians invaded Ukraine and took over Crimea.
And the small and bullying leader of Russia is now dictating terms to the United States to the point where all the United States of America — the greatest nation on Earth — just withdraws from talks about a cease-fire while Vladimir Putin puts a missile defense system in Syria while he marshals the forces and begins — look, we have got to begin to lean into this with strong, broad-shouldered American leadership.
It begins by rebuilding our military. And the Russians and the Chinese have been making enormous investments in the military. We have the smallest Navy since 1916. We have the lowest number of troops since the end of the Second World War. We’ve got to work with Congress, and Donald Trump will, to rebuild our military and project American strength in the world.
But about Aleppo and about Syria, I truly do believe that what America ought to do right now is immediately establish safe zones, so that families and vulnerable families with children can move out of those areas, work with our Arab partners, real time, right now, to make that happen.
And secondly, I just have to tell you that the provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength. And if Russia chooses to be involved and continue, I should say, to be involved in this barbaric attack on civilians in Aleppo, the United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime to prevent them from this humanitarian crisis that is taking place in Aleppo.
There’s a broad range of other things that we ought to do, as well. We ought to deploy a missile defense shield to the Czech Republic and Poland which Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama pulled back on out of not wanting to offend the Russians back in 2009.
That all sounds impressive, but it bears no relation whatsoever to Trump’s hands-off approach to Syria and Trump’s Putin-worship.
Pence was right about one thing: Russia would not work to Clinton’s advantage against any other Republican. The John Hay Initiative, a conservative foreign-policy shop, has a useful primer on Trump’s mistaken Russian policy:
Trump’s assertion that Washington should collaborate with Moscow in order to defeat ISIS is based on wishful thinking. His position does not take into account Russia’s ongoing actions in Syria that work against bringing about a sustainable end to the humanitarian disaster and terrorist threat. Putin’s primary objective in Syria is to maintain the power of the Assad regime, which routinely kills its own citizens while sponsoring terrorism, emboldening Iran, and inciting instability in the region. Overall, contrary to Trump’s statements, relying on Russian cooperation in Syria is not a viable path toward defeating ISIS.
And even the Obama administration has now given up on talks with Russia concerning a cease-fire.
Clinton, you recall, wanted a much more robust Syria policy but was rebuffed by the White House. So what we really need is a Clinton-Pence approach to Syria and Russia, right? The only ones in favor of letting Russia run wild are Putin and Trump.