Trump’s outlandish foreign policy claims unlikely to boost his standing

If Trump was hoping to appeal to undecided voters concerned about direction of American foreign policy, he failed.

2016/10/23 Issue: 78 Page: 15

The Arab Weekly
Gregory Aftandilian

Although the head­lines from the last US presidential debate focused on Republi­can candidate Donald Trump’s unwilling­ness to say he would uncondition­ally accept the outcome of the November 8th vote, he also made outrageous foreign policy comments that cater to his political base but are not likely to improve his chances of winning the White House.

If Trump was hoping to appeal to undecided voters concerned about the direction of American foreign policy, he failed.

When Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton attacked him for his support for Russian President Vladimir Putin, pointing out that the US intelligence community has concluded that the Kremlin was involved in hacking e-mails to influence the presidential election, Trump replied that Clinton has “no idea” about Russia’s role and added that Putin “outsmarted her” on Syria.

Trump said he “condemned” the e-mail hacking but explained that if the United States had “gotten along with Russia, it wouldn’t be so bad”. He suggested that the lack of cooperation with Moscow has allowed the Russians to “take over” the Middle East.

Trump’s embrace of Putin and Russia’s role in Syria are baffling to most Americans, not just the foreign policy elite. Trump undoubtedly sees some merit in contrasting Putin’s strongman style with what the billionaire businessman calls the “weak” leadership of US President Barack Obama and Clinton. (Trump said during the debate that Putin has “no respect” for Clinton.)

But it is one thing to attack your opponent for lack of leadership and another to compare her unfavourably with the traits of an authoritarian leader whom you admire.

Adding more insult, Trump praised Syrian President Bashar Assad as being “much tougher and much smarter than” Clinton and Obama. Anyone who follows the news knows that Assad, with Russian support, continues to commit war crimes in Aleppo by bombing civilian neighbourhoods. Millions of Americans saw and were moved by the image of the dazed Syrian boy in an ambulance covered in dust and blood from one such bombing, an image Clinton alluded to during the debate.

Another outrageous message that Trump touted during the debate was that the offensive by Iraqi government forces against the stronghold of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Mosul was timed to get Clinton elected, implying there is a conspiracy by the White House, the US military, the Iraqi government and other anti-ISIS forces to boost Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency.

Trump offered no evidence to support this claim. Again, such conspiracies play to his political base, which tends to believe there is a huge secret cabal at work in Washington. It also ties in to his conspiracy theory that the US presidential election will be “rigged”.

Trump did raise a few foreign policy issues that were more reasonable and would appeal to more moderate voters. For example, he said Obama and Clinton should have left some forces in Iraq to prevent ISIS from forming and noted that ISIS was now in many countries, implying that the US counterterrorism strategy was failing.

The Obama administration and Clinton have argued that the Iraqi leadership refused to support a status of forces agreement with the US military, thus precluding the stationing of a residual US military force in Iraq. However, some Republican foreign policy specialists have argued that the Obama administration did not try hard enough to secure such an agreement because the president was intent on fulfilling his 2008 campaign promise to withdraw US troops from Iraq.

If Trump had stuck with such reasonable messages, he could have been able to broaden his political support but his personality is such that he relishes making outrageous and provocative statements.

This leads to the question of Trump’s temperament. Americans have many misgivings about Clinton largely because of the e-mail controversy involving her work as secretary of State but she is seen as more suited to deal with national security issues than Trump.

Polls conducted in September on the issue of whom people trust more on foreign policy indicated that Clinton had a 57% to 39% advantage over Trump. On the question of who is best equipped to be commander-in-chief, she led Trump 50% to 45%. And on the question of who has the better overall temperament to be president, her lead over Trump expanded to a whopping 20%.

Trump’s comments and behaviour during the debates have done nothing to ease concerns about whether he is suited for the presidency. If anything, the debates have made him seem more ill-tempered and reinforced the feeling that he is not the person who should oversee the US nuclear arsenal.

Gregory Aftandilian is a lecturer at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and is a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst.

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