As Trump struggled against Clinton, foreign policy proved his weakest card
Abu Dhabi // For unsettled American allies and partners around the world anxiously watching the home stretch of the US presidential elections, Hillary Clinton’s strong performance in the first debate will likely bring some relief.
In perhaps the most anticipated debate in modern US presidential history, Donald Trump did little to clarify his positions on an array of foreign policy topics.
The candidates clashed over a number of global issues during the portion dedicated to “keeping America secure”, including the fight against ISIL, the Iran nuclear deal, cyber security, and Russia.
The candidates are in a virtual tie in the latest polls, with Mr Trump inching ahead of his Democratic rival in the key swing state of Ohio. Political observers were nearly unanimous in their verdict that Mrs Clinton dominated the first of three debates, but it is still unclear how much the showdown at Hofstra University in New York swayed undecided voters.
Mr Trump started the debate, which mainly focused on domestic economic issues, in a staid and controlled fashion, but the reality television star quickly reverted to the off-the-cuff style that has in part propelled him to the brink of the presidency by appealing to a base of disaffected white voters.
But Mrs Clinton’s prepared and deliberate debate style that focused on policy details while also attacking Mr Trump meant the Republican candidate soon lost his cool and his way.
Mrs Clinton scored points over issues such as his refusal to disclose tax returns, support for the Iraq war and his racist political tactics, such as questioning Barack Obama’s citizenship.
In response, Mr Trump launched a number of highly-personal attacks, questioning Mrs Clinton’s stamina and lauding himself for not bringing up her family. Mrs Clinton showed that she could deviate from her studied answers and counterpunch on the fly, at one point saying, “I think Donald just criticised me for preparing for this debate. And, yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that’s a good thing.”
Mr Trump struggled the most on foreign policy, dodging some of the moderator’s questions, while diverging on unrelated tangents, and often contradicted himself. When Ms Clinton said he initially supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which he did in a 2002 interview, he berated the “mainstream media nonsense put out by her” and questioned why no reporters had tried to interview Fox News’ Sean Hannity, who he said could confirm that he opposed the war.
He also sought to tie Mrs Clinton to the rise of ISIL in Iraq. Trump claimed the extremist group “wouldn’t have even been formed if you left some troops behind” in Iraq while she was secretary of state during Mr Obama’s first term. He added that the US should have taken Iraq’s oil, which would have prevented the formation of ISIL. “Now they have oil all over the place, including a lot of the oil in Libya,” Mr Trump said.
His underlying message was that Mrs Clinton represents the tried and failed US political class that is responsible for what he claims is a country in terminal decline, powerless in the face of domestic and global challenges such as terrorism. “You’re telling the enemy everything you want to do. No wonder you’ve been fighting ISIS your entire adult life,” he said, defending the ambiguity of his own plans.
Ms Clinton laid out her strategy to defeat the group, which was similar to Mr Obama’s current approach, although she said she would intensify airstrikes and “support our Arab and Kurdish partners to be able to actually take out ISIS in Raqqa”. She called for working with Middle Eastern and European governments on an “intelligence surge”.
She called Mr Trump’s baiting of Muslims during his campaign dangerously counterproductive. “Donald has consistently insulted Muslims abroad, Muslims at home, when we need to be cooperating with Muslim nations and with the American Muslim community,” she said. “They’re on the front lines.”
Mr Trump said he did not want to give away the details of his plan, but said he wanted to work with Nato and Middle Eastern partners to “knock the hell” out of the extremist group, and “do it fast”.
His position on Nato seemed to be a step back from his criticism of the treaty members, who he said should pay the US more or risk Washington’s withdrawal from Nato.
Mrs Clinton, by contrast, sought to emphasize her foreign policy experience and reassure allies. “I know that this campaign has caused some questioning and some worries on the part of many leaders across the globe — I have talked with a number of them,” she said. “But I want to, on behalf of myself, and I think on behalf of the majority of the American people, say that our word is good.”
Mr Trump’s performance will have done nothing to reassure Washington’s traditional partners and allies in the Gulf and wider region. “we’ve been working with them for many years and we have the greatest mess that anyone’s ever seen,” he said. “You look at the Middle East, it’s a total mess.” He also reiterated his call for US partners around the world to pay the US or risk losing its security cooperation, including Saudi Arabia.
He did little to dispel the widespread impression that he has a soft spot for Russian president Vladimir Putin.
During a discussion on their respective cyber security policies, Ms Clinton said “we don’t want to use the kind of tools that we have… [but] we will defend the citizens of this country and the Russians need to understand that.” Moscow has been blamed by US intelligence as responsible for the leaking of a number of hacked Democratic party documents during the campaigns.
Mr Trump countered by appearing to defend Russia. “She’s saying Russia, Russia, Russia — maybe it was… it could be China, it could be a lot of other people. It could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”
In a moment that summed up Mr Trump’s night on the debate stage, he then called for tougher cyber security measures, followed by a non sequitur about
his youngest son. “I have a son. He’s ten years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers, it’s unbelievable. The security aspect of cyber is very tough and maybe it’s hardly doable.”
Published: September 27, 2016 04:00 AM