Vice-Presidential debate: Pence pushes Kaine and Clinton on military action in Syria


In VP Debate, Pence Reveals Thrust of Foreign Policy Attack Against Clinton

During the Vice-Presidential debate between Tim Kaine and Mike Spence, Spence revealed a powerful line of critique of Barack Obama’s foreign policy towards Syria and Hillary Clinton’s refusal, to date, to distance herself from it.

Donald Trump may well adopt this line of attack in the second presidential debate on October 9, 2016. Then again, he may disagree with Pence or not have the discipline to deliver the attack.

In any event, Hillary Clinton had better be prepared for this attack, with more specific substance than her platitudes to date have contained.

The moderator’s question and the relevant portions of the candidates’ responses follow:

QUIJANO: I want to turn now to Syria. Two hundred fifty thousand people, 100,000 of them children, are under siege in Aleppo, Syria. Bunker buster bombs, cluster munitions, and incendiary weapons are being dropped on them by Russian and Syrian militaries. Does the U.S. have a responsibility to protect civilians and prevent mass casualties on this scale, Governor Pence?

PENCE: 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.

QUIJANO: Governor, your two minutes are up.

PENCE: We’ve just got to have American strength on the world stage. When Donald Trump becomes president of the United States, the Russians and other countries in the world will know they’re dealing with a strong American president.

QUIJANO: Senator Kaine?

KAINE: Hillary and I also agree that the establishment of humanitarian zones in northern Syria with the provision of international human aid, consistent with the U.N. Security Council resolution that was passed in February 2014, would be a very, very good idea.

And Hillary also has the ability to stand up to Russia in a way that this ticket does not. Donald Trump, again and again, has praised Vladimir Putin. And it’s clear that he has business dealings with Russian oligarchs who are very connected to Putin.

–Aaron Blake, “The Mike Pence vs. Tim Kaine vice-presidential debate transcript, annotated, “Washington Post, October 5, 2016.


Pence was prepared for the question, and had specific proposals for actions that could be taken, right now, to protect the civilian population of Aleppo and Syria.

His reference to Putin as “small” was a grossly mean-spirited reference to a totally irrelevant personal characteristic of Vladimir Putin. Pence would have done well to recall that other leaders, such as Napoleon Bonaparte, were not the tall magnificent specimens of humanity that Pence apparently thinks he and Trump are.

Kaine was not prepared, and stumbled, referring to “international human aid” (Instead of “humanitarian” aid), saying he and Hillary supported “the establishment of international humanitarian zones in northern Syria with the provision of international human aid, consistent with the U.N. Security Council resolution that was passed in February 2014,” and argued that doing so would be “a very, very good idea”.

He then went on to attack the Trump campaign’s ties with Russians and supporters of Putin.

The toothless Security Council Resolution to which he referred did not authorize the taking of military action against the will of Bashar al-Assad, and consequently failed to address the dilemma that any effective Security Council action against Syria will be vetoed by Russia, as it has been since February 4, 2012.

See U.N. Security Council, Press Release, “Security Council Unanimously Adopts Resolution 2139 (2014) to Ease Aid Delivery to Syrians, Provide Relief from ‘Chilling Darkness’,” Security Council, SC/11292, 22 February 2014.

The press release contains the full text of the resolution, which is chilling in its incantations and the fact that in two and a half years no effective measures have been taken to give effect to the moral concerns expressed in it.

Above all, Kaine’s response showed how out of his depth he is on foreign policy, and how ill-prepared the Clinton campaign is to provide real, substantive responses to probing questions about current U.S. foreign policy dilemmas, and what Hillary would do to resolve them.

Kaine, and Hillary until she comes up with specific action proposals, is lost in the world of debating ideas, just like President Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, in Aleppo…

Meanwhile, in Aleppo, a Russian and Syrian campaign characterized by the continual commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity of a very large scale continues, causing immense human death and destruction.


Samer Attar, “In Aleppo, U.S. inaction green-lights war crimes,”The Washington Post, October 5, 2016 (8:18 PM).

“The U.S., British and French air forces are already over Syria. Why do they do nothing to stop the government’s attacks on homes, schools and hospitals? In their inaction, they have essentially green-lighted the war crimes of the Syrian government and its allies.

President Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry speak of pleas and diplomacy. Why has it been so hard for them to see that they have been negotiating with thugs who laugh at their fecklessness? Since when does the United States plead with war criminals?”

Pence proposes action that will halt the atrocities. Kaine offers more dithering and discussion of “very, very good idea(s)” without addressing the modalities of their implementation.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.