It was a stunning departure for a vice presidential candidate. Asked what should be done in Syria during the debate with his Democratic rival, Mike Pence, the Republican nominee for VP, went Awol, conjuring up a new policy live on air.
A Donald Trump administration would meet provocations by Russia, President Bashar al-Assad’s ally, “with American strength”. They would “immediately establish safe zones” for civilians fleeing the violence in Aleppo.
Should the Syrian regime continue bombing its citizens, Mr Pence said, “America should be prepared to use military force to strike the military forces of the Assad regime”.
The jaws of Syria-watchers dropped everywhere. Mr Pence had just called for a strategy so interventionist that it went far beyond the hopes of hawkish Hillary Clinton. An old fashioned, guns-blazing war cry.
Pence V Kaine: Vice Presidential debate analysis Play!01:14
The job of a running mate is to promote the views of his presidential candidate, and so give readers a window into how their administration would look should they win. But Mr Pence’s response to the Syrian war was diametrically opposed to the solutions proffered by his would be commander-in-chief.
Admittedly Mr Trump has garbled his message on Syria, often being vague to the point of incoherence. (He likes, for example, to say he would “take the oil” from the country, but doesn’t explain how.)
But he has been relatively clear on three things: he would not establish a safe zone, he believes Mr Assad is “better” than the US-backed opposition, and he thinks Russia’s role in Syria, particularly in fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is a “wonderful thing”.
“Putin is now taking over what we started, and he’s going into Syria, and he frankly wants to fight ISIS, and I think that’s a wonderful thing,” Mr Trump said on Fox news. “In terms of leadership, he’s getting an A, and our president is not doing so well.”
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So the question to the Trump campaign is, which policy is it?
A well-connnected Washington source told me he saw Mr Pence’s freelancing on Syria as a further sign that the campaign doesn’t care about uniformity of message. Almost no one has access to discuss policy with Mr Trump, he said; apparently not even his vice presidential pick. Come off as stylistically sound, and you’re fine, the Trump strategists likely advised.
But Syria is the problem of our time. Hundreds of thousands of people have been slaughtered. Millions more displaced. And whether the US likes it or not, the world is going to look to the next American president for a solution.
What happens in Washington matters, for Syria and the world. The refugee crisis has already been felt in Europe. The White House’s response to the current detente with Russia over the war there could have global consequences.
The fact that the Trump campaign has apparently not bothered to develop a policy, and if they have, that they certainly don’t believe in telling voters what it is, is a gross insult to those suffering daily bloodshed. And it is also dangerous.
Mr Trump owes it American voters, and to rest of the world, to explain where he stands on Syria.
Tags: Aleppo, Bashar al-Assad, Daesh, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, interventionist, ISIL, Islamic state, Kaine, Mike Pence, military force, Obama, Pence, Putin, refugee crisis, Russia, safe zone, Syria, Tim Kaine