Donald Trump's performance in the final presidential debate will be remembered for a lot of reasons, but probably not for his particular attempts at foreign policy commentary, which were less conspicuous than his grumbling interruptions of his adversary Hillary Clinton and his apparent rejection of the norms of the American democratic process.
But consider his response when asked about Mosul, the Iraqi city that's been under control of the Islamic State since the summer of 2014 and that is now the target of a ground offensive launched by the Iraqi government. The thrust of the question posed by debate moderator was whether — once the city is recaptured, as it is expected to be — U.S. troops should constitute some form of occupation force.
Clinton said no and that a large American troop deployment would be a "big red flag waving for ISIS to reconstitute itself." She went on to talk about the difficulties of fighting the extremist group and linked the challenge to the civil war in neighboring Syria and the need to gain leverage over the Syrian regime and its international allies.
Then came Trump. WorldViews presents below the entirety of his response, interspersed with our commentary.
Let me tell you, Mosul is so sad. We had Mosul. But when she left, when she took everybody out, we lost Mosul. Now we're fighting again to get Mosul. The problem with Mosul and what they wanted to do is they wanted to get the leaders of ISIS who they felt were in Mosul.
About three months ago, I started reading that they want to get the leaders and they're going to attack Mosul. Whatever happened to the element of surprise, okay? We announce we're going after Mosul. I have been reading about going after Mosul now for about — how long is it, Hillary, three months? These people have all left. They've all left.
Despite ignoring the real policy question at hand — what to do going forward — Trump starts off on relatively solid ground. He bangs the drum that other Republicans and neoconservatives have about the Obama administration's withdrawal from Iraq, which its critics claim paved the way for the chaos that followed. This is a complicated and debatable assertion: the troop pullout was something acceded to by the Bush administration and desired by the Iraqi government in Baghdad itself; the Islamic State's origins can also be pinned to the dissolution of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime after the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Trump then goes on to point out that the terrorist group's leadership has likely now fled the Iraqi city toward their other redoubts in eastern Syria. That's probably true, as recent reports indicate. But it's totally beside the point. The offensive is about reclaiming one of Iraq's most important cities and the major urban center in the country's fractious north. Targeting the Islamic State's leadership, mostly through airstrikes, is something Washington has been doing separately for quite some time.
Then comes the utterly laughable suggestion that the Mosul offensive has only been in discussion for the past three months. That may be a reflection of when the city and the strategic conundrum it represents first entered Trump's consciousness, but anybody following the conflicts in Iraq and Syria would know that Baghdad's plan to mobilize a complicated set of factions and reclaim Mosul has been out in the open for well over a year. In March 2015, as my colleagues report, the Iraqi government even dumped thousands of leaflets over Mosul telling everyone about their intent to liberate the city.
The idea that the best strategy would be a surprise attack demonstrates both an almost childish understanding of military matters as well a total obliviousness to the complexities on the ground.
"There is no way to assemble 40,000 troops and suddenly mad-dash into a city of 2 million people, with no advance, and — unavoidably — visible preparation," notes Slate's Fred Kaplan. "There is especially no way to do so when — for political as well as military reasons — these 40,000 troops consist of Iraqi soldiers and police, Kurdish peshmerga, Sunni tribesmen, Shiite militias, and American special forces, air power, and intelligence, all with Turkish assent."
At no point in this election campaign — and we at WorldViews have followed Trump's foreign policy speeches from the beginning — has the Republican nominee ever demonstrated an interest or appreciation for this nuance.
The element of surprise. Douglas MacArthur, George Patton spinning in their graves when they see the stupidity of our country.
And then he doubles down on the idea of a surprise attack with an amazing bit of hyperbole. Sure, it would be interesting to know what these famed American generals of yore would make of the "stupidity" of the present.
For what it's worth, though, MacArthur himself is accused of falling victim to surprise attacks, particularly the Japanese bombing and invasion of the Philippines in December 1941 that led to tens of thousands of American and Filipino deaths. He burnished his credentials in 1950 during the Korean War with a dramatic, surprise amphibious landing at Inchon that helped turn the tide against the North Koreans. That conflict, though, ended not in victory but in an intractable stalemate that remains to this day.
Whatever the case, the modern battlefield is vastly different from what it was more than half a century ago, and for Trump to assume otherwise reveals a great deal about his own capacity for strategic thinking.
So we're now fighting for Mosul, that we had. All she had to do was stay there, and now we're going in to get it.
But you know who the big winner in Mosul is going to be after we eventually get it? And the only reason they did it is because she's running for the office of president and they want to look tough. They want to look good. He violated the red line in the sand, and he made so many mistakes, made all the mistakes. That's why we have the great migration. But she wanted to look good for the election. So they're going in.
Trump clutches at tiny straws, making the absurd claim that the offensive, which has been in the works for months, was timed to help Clinton's election campaign. He then pivots in the next sentence to what seems to be an attack on President Obama, invoking the White House's inability to punish the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against civilians — what Obama had deemed a "red line." The sentence structure is a bit convoluted — did Obama "violate" the red line or Assad?
Moreover, in the same debate, Trump also panned the United States' dealings with rebels fighting Assad. So it's not quite clear what "mistakes" he's referring to, unless he's implying that Washington should have backed the Syrian regime from the beginning.
He then goes on to suggest that, because of American inaction or indecision in Syria, we have a refugee crisis. Except, he doesn't call it a refugee crisis or humanitarian disaster but a "great migration," a curious term for a tragedy that the international community is struggling to manage. I have already written at length on Trump and the GOP's obfuscation and lying about the status of refugees and the threat they would pose in the United States. It's also interesting that Trump invokes the "great migration," a phrase more commonly associated with the early 20th century movement of African Americans from the rural south to the industrialized cities of the north.
Given the heated politics of Trump's campaign, maybe there's logic in building a combined bogeyman.
But who's going to get Mosul, really? We'll take Mosul eventually. But the way — if you look at what's happening, much tougher than they thought. Much, much tougher. Much more dangerous. Going to be more deaths that they thought.
But the leaders that we wanted to get are all gone because they're smart. They say, what do we need this for? So Mosul is going to be a wonderful thing. And Iran should write us a letter of thank you, just like the really stupid — the stupidest deal of all time, a deal that's going to give Iran absolutely nuclear weapons. Iran should write us yet another letter saying thank you very much, because Iran, as I said many years ago, Iran is taking over Iraq, something they've wanted to do forever, but we've made it so easy for them.
So we're now going to take Mosul. And do you know who's going to be the beneficiary? Iran. Oh, yeah, they're making — I mean, they are outsmarting — look, you're not there, you might be involved in that decision. But you were there when you took everybody out of Mosul and out of Iraq. You shouldn't have been in Iraq, but you did vote for it. You shouldn't have been in Iraq, but once you were in Iraq, you should have never left the way.
The day after the debate, the Iraqi government announced that the Mosul offensive was moving far more swiftly than expected. Still, there are obvious reasons for caution, including concerns for the safety of Mosul's civilian population as well as over the Islamic State's capacity for hideous terrorist attacks and suicide bombings.
Trump returns to the irrelevant point about the jihadist "leaders" not being in Mosul before he launches into a bewildering attack on the Iran deal, which doesn't have much to do with the Mosul offensive. A consensus of experts believes that the nuclear deal negotiated by world powers with Iran is working and minimizes the risk of Iran developing a nuclear weapon.
The Islamic Republic is indeed a real player in Iraq. A host of Shiite militias with links to Tehran have been on the front lines against the Islamic State. But they've taken a backseat during the Mosul offensive, largely to allay fears of sectarian clashes once the majority-Sunni city returns to government control. It's not clear at all that Iran will be the prime beneficiary of what follows — there are a host of other regional actors, including Turkey and the Kurds, who may all want a piece of the prize and have more immediate claims on northern Iraq.
And Iran's strong position in Iraq is a direct consequence of the U.S. invasion in 2003, which toppled a doggedly anti-Iranian regime and enabled the rise of a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. And this is an invasion that, contrary to what Trump says at the very end, the Republican nominee was for before he was against it.
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