Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday October 9th, 2016


I am sure that for many Americans, it was the first time they had paid much attention to Donald Trump’s vice presidential running-mate Mike Pense. He seemed like an affable guy and in his mostly calm way appeared to be the antithesis of his frenetic, erratic boss. That may be why more people apparently preferred him to Hillary Clinton’s running- mate Tim Kaine during the vice-presidential debate this past week. Kaine was seen as more strident and argumentative than Pense.

But such differences of form over substance can be deceiving. Pense, who wears his conservative Christian credentials quite prominently on his sleeve, can, like his boss, look the American people in the eye and flatly deny things that he or Trump have said in public– such as his absolute denial that he had ever praised Russian President Vladimir Putin as a stronger leader of his country than President Barack Obama was of this country. It is of course, on tape and its replay has since been seen endlessly. 

That Pense quality of denying the obvious truth came to light in an incident nearly ten years ago which at the time struck me notable. Pense, who was then a congressman, went to Baghdad as part of a congressional delegation led by Senator John McCain. McCain had pressed for the significant increase of US troop levels in Iraq in the spring of 2007 which became known as the “surge.” In an attempt to demonstrate how the surge had made things much safer in Baghdad, the members of Congress visited a large market which had had recent security problems. They spent about an hour and afterwards pronounced themselves satisfied with their outing. But Pense was particularly effusive in praising how safe things seemed, saying it was just like “a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summer time.”

Except, according to video news accounts of the visit, the delegation was protected by about 100 American soldiers in humvees, attack helicopters circled above them, sharp shooters were posted on the roofs and the congressmen were all wearing bullet proof vests . Like an outdoor market in Indiana in the summer time? Not exactly.

Actually, it may be that Pense’s performance in the vice-president’s debate, was more notable for the apparent differences in his positions and Trump’s, when it comes to what should be done to stop the carnage in Aleppo, Syria. Pense seemed to want the take firmer military steps to end the humanitarian disaster there –including actions which could put American and Russian troops in direct confrontation. This was a far more aggressive stance than Trump had been proposing.

I am hoping that in tonight’s second presidential debate- a town hall meeting at Washington University in St. Louis – that both Trump and Hillary Clinton will be pressed for specific details on what they believe should be done. Ever since the collapse of the American-Russian ceasefire agreement in Syria, this has become the major topic of discussion in foreign policy circles.

President Obama remains determined not to be sucked into the Syrian civil war in which the opposition to President Bashar Assad includes al Qaida affiliated troops, as well as Islamic State terrorists. But more to the point, he has wanted to avoid direct U.S. military involvement in what is actually a religious proxy war being fought throughout the entire region, between the Shiites led by Iran and the Sunni’s headed by Saudi Arabia. The situation has been made even more precarious in the past year with the presence of substantial numbers of Russian troops, ships and aircraft. Yet even those who have been generally sympathetic to Obama’s dilemma, have been moved by the catastrophe of Aleppo and a belief that surely, America can and must do something.

David Ignatius, the thoughtful Washington Post foreign affairs and intelligence specialist, wrote with unusual passion this past week, “Whatever else U.S. officials say about Syria, they should begin with the admission that we are diminished, as individuals and as a nation, by watching the destruction of a city and its people. Russia may be wading further into a quagmire, but the United States is deep in a moral one. The stain of Syria won’t leave our national consciousness for many years.”

Still, the fundamental question remains. With Russian and Syrian planes bombing hospitals and civilian areas with an array of incendiary munitions turning Aleppo into a giant crematorium, what can be done which might make things better? On Tuesday, Governor Pense revived the idea of setting up a no-fly-zone to protect Syrian civilians. Hillary Clinton has also suggested using American air power to create a safe zone for non- combatants.

However, there is very little appetite in the U.S. military for this idea. Ignatius reports that Pentagon officials still cite a 2013 letter to Congress from then Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey that to set up a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians would cost $500 million initially and $1 billion a month to maintain. It would also “require hundreds of ground and sea based aircraft.” That was before the Russian intervention. In recent days the Russians have warned that their planes already control the airspace over Aleppo and they have no intention of voluntarily ceding that control to the USAF.

But there may be something America could do, short of war with Russia. Ignatius raised the idea in his column and others have suggested something similar, namely, that the U.S. and its international allies should organize a massive relief effort of food and medical supplies. It should then line up large convoys on the Turkish, Jordanian and Lebanese borders with Syria and dare the Russians to try to stop them. Given the Russian bombing of a relief convoy on its way to Aleppo last month, this may indeed be chancy. But as an increasing number of people are feeling, this would be better than doing nothing. I would very much like to hear tonight what Clinton and Trump think of this idea - or if either has a better one.

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