By Juan Cole / Informed Comment

The NBC Candidates Forum continued the shameful corporate coverage of the Great American Meltdown that is our election season. That season has given us a Faux Cable News that runs clips of only one side and pays out hush money to cover up how its blonde anchors were not so much hired as trafficked; a CNN that has hired a paid employee of the candidate as a consultant and analyst; and networks that won’t mention climate change or carbon emissions the same way they won’t mention labor unions. They aren’t even trying to do journalism any more– cable “news” is mostly infotainment as a placeholder between ads for toilet paper. I can’t bear to watch it most of the time and just read the news on the Web. If I have to watch t.v. I turn on local news (often does a better job on national stories too) or Alarabiya and Aljazeera, which for all their faults do actually have real news (and their faults cancel out one another). I can always get the transcript for the cable news shows; reading it is faster and less painful than having to watch.

The NBC Forum didn’t really challenge either candidate on implausible statements, but on the whole engaged in a lot of badgering of Hillary Clinton while letting Donald Trump get away with outright misstatements of the facts and tossing him a lot of softballs.

The big Middle East questions for Clinton came from military personnel and veterans and concerned Iraq and Syria. She also got an Iran question.

QUESTION: Secretary Clinton, as an Army veteran, a commander-in- chief’s to empathize with servicemembers and their families is important to me. The ability to truly understand implications and consequences of your decisions, actions, or inactions. How will you determine when and where to deploy troops directly into harm’s way, especially to combat ISIS?

LAUER: As briefly as you can.

CLINTON: We have to defeat ISIS. That is my highest counterterrorism goal. And we’ve got to do it with air power. We’ve got to do it with much more support for the Arabs and the Kurds who will fight on the ground against ISIS. We have to squeeze them by continuing to support the Iraqi military. They’ve taken back Ramadi, Fallujah. They’ve got to hold them. They’ve got to now get into Mosul.

We’re going to work to make sure that they have the support — they have special forces, as you know, they have enablers, they have surveillance, intelligence, reconnaissance help.

They are not going to get ground troops. We are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again. And we’re not putting ground troops into Syria. We’re going to defeat ISIS without committing American ground troops. So those are the kinds of decisions we have to make on a case-by-case basis.

So that’s the headline: Hillary Clinton pledges no ground troops in Iraq or Syria. She doesn’t seem to understand that President Obama has recreated the Iraq Command and has 4,000 or so troops there. There are 250 embedded with the far-left Kurdish YPG in northeast Syria. So is she saying she would pull those troops out? Or that they aren’t ground troops?

Plus she started by saying she will defeat ISIL (though it may be already defeated territorially before she ever gets into office). She says she will defeat it from the air and give support to the Iraqi Army.

From the point of view of military strategy, nothing she said makes any sense. You can’t defeat a guerrilla group from the air. So far no force on the ground has been willing to go after ISIL in its Syrian lair, al-Raqqa. How would she change all that?

As for supporting the Iraqi army, it collapsed in 2014 and only one really good brigade has been retrained and shown effectiveness. None of the cities she mentioned it taking would have fallen to it without extensive help from Shiite militias, many of which are tight with Iran. So if she is going to intervene from the air, she is going to have to support pro-Iranian irregulars, not just the Iraqi army.

Nor is it clear that the Iraqi Army and its Shiite auxiliaries can truly defeat Daesh/ ISIL. Yes, they can take territory. But a lot of Sunni Arabs are frustrated with the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad and they are not going to be less frustrated if they feel they have traded Daesh rule for Shiite militia rule.

Iraqi Shiites have a profound blind spot to their own sectarianism, having occupied the space of “the national” in Iraq and claimed it for themselves. They are in denial about how much the Sunni Arabs collaborated with Daesh to get away from Shiite rule. While it is true that many Sunni Arabs were happy to be rescued from Daesh by the Iraqi Army, it is not clear that any of the promises of Baghdad to put money into cities like Ramadi and Fallujah will be honored.

As for Iran, she stood by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that pledges Iran only to enrich uranium for civilian purposes.

“LAUER: Do you think they’re playing us?

CLINTON: On the nuclear issue, no. I think we have enough insight into what they’re doing to be able to say we have to distrust but verify. What I am focused on is all the other malicious activities of the Iranians — ballistic missiles, support for terrorists, being involved in Syria, Yemen, and other places, supporting Hezbollah, Hamas.

But here’s the difference, Matt. I would rather as president be dealing with Iran on all of those issues without having to worry as much about their racing for a nuclear weapon. So we have made the world safer; we just have to make sure it’s enforced.

It is not clear to me what terrorists she thinks Iran is supporting. Hezbollah doesn’t function as a terrorist organization but as the national guard for Shiite-majority south Lebanon. Israel annexed south Lebanon in 1982 after launching a brutal war of aggression that may have left 90,000 dead. Hizbullah grew up as a resistance movement to that aggression and that occupation, both of which the United States government tacitly supported. We all know exactly what Israelis would do if someone tried to occupy 10% of Israel as it is now constituted. So why call Lebanese who resist occupation ‘terrorists’? Except, if you rather like the idea of Israel occupying neighboring Arabs?

As for Hamas, Iran and it haven’t had good relations since Hamas broke with Tehran to support the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (they bet on the wrong horse). Besides, demonizing Hamas is silly. The Gaza Strip is a large outdoor concentration camp kept that way by the Israelis and the inmates under such conditions are likely to stage prison riots from time to time. End the occupation, Hamas might go away. There wasn’t any Hamas in Gaza to speak of anyway until the Israelis themselves covertly built it up in the 1980s as an alternative to the secular PLO.

The Iranians are not involved in any meaningful way in Yemen, which is beset by internal struggles between the deposed president Ali Abdullah Saleh (an Arab nationalist that Mrs. Clinton used to support) and his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, with the Saudis having come in on the side of the latter (they used to support Saleh). True, Saleh has allied with a Zaidi militia, the Houthis, but Zaidism is a completely different kind of Shiism than in Iran and Iran is not a big player in Yemen. Saudi Arabia, which is indiscriminately bombing civilian infrastructure in Yemen like bridges and hospitals, is the meddling party, not Iran. Over a hundred thousand residents of the capital, Sanaa, demonstrated recently against the Saudis. Not even one was an Iranian.

It is truly scary that this is Clinton’s take on Yemen.

As for Syria, I also criticize Iran for propping up the genocidal al-Assad regime. But the forces backed by the Saudis in conjunction with the US CIA are just as bad; some of them are worse.

And besides, we just decided that she needs pro-Iranian Shiite militias if she is going to have someone to give close air support to in the fight against Daesh.

These talking points on Iran may as well have been written for Clinton jointly by Bibi Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. They bear no resemblance to an American grand strategy that would make sense for American interests.

So I don’t think she has a realistic way of intervening effectively in the Middle East (air power is useless in these kinds of struggles), and I fear she is so biased against Iran that she will end up de facto undermining the JCPOA and thence alienating the only effective set of potential regional allies against Daesh.

She also doesn’t say what she will do when air power fails to defeat Daesh.

As for The Donald, I don’t know if there is a lot of point in analyzing what he says, since he will say the opposite things tomorrow.

On Middle East issues, Trump said:

“President Obama took over, likewise, it was a disaster. It was actually somewhat stable. I don’t think could ever be very stable to where we should have never gone into in the first place.

But he came in. He said when we go out — and he took everybody out. And really, ISIS was formed. This was a terrible decision. And frankly, we never even got a shot. And if you really look at the aftermath of Iraq, Iran is going to be taking over Iraq. They’ve been doing it. And it’s not a pretty picture.

The — and I think you know — because you’ve been watching me I think for a long time — I’ve always said, shouldn’t be there, but if we’re going to get out, take the oil. If we would have taken the oil, you wouldn’t have ISIS, because ISIS formed with the power and the wealth of that oil.

LAUER: How were we going to take the oil? How were we going to do that?

TRUMP: Just we would leave a certain group behind and you would take various sections where they have the oil. They have — people don’t know this about Iraq, but they have among the largest oil reserves in the world, in the entire world.”

Iraq was not stable in 2011; it was being regularly blown up by terrorists. Obama’s withdrawal of US troops did not destabilize it. That had already happened. There was no way for US troops to stay there since the Iraqi parliament would not vote them immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts.

Trump’s ridiculous suggestion that the US should have found a way to steal Iraq’s petroleum, apparently by establishing a mercenary force at the Rumayla fields near Basra, is so preposterous that even Matt Lauer timidly and briefly questioned it.

The proposition that if the US had in fact managed to steal Iraq’s petroleum fields for itself that would have calmed the country down and prevented the rise of ISIL is so absurd that there are no words to describe how absurd it is. It is actually more absurd than any of Sarah Palin’s word salads.

It is like a presidential candidate saying that we’d have much better relations with Norway, and that country would be more stable, if the United States hired local mercenaries to occupy its oil fields and siphon of their profits to US banks. (Sounds properly absurd when you put it in the context of white people, doesn’t it?)

Then there was this:

“TRUMP: Hey, Matt, again, she made a mistake on Libya. She made a terrible mistake on Libya. And the next thing, I mean, not only did she make the mistake, but then they complicated the mistake by having no management once they bombed you know what out of Gadhafi. I mean, she made a terrible mistake on Libya. And part of it was the management aftereffect. I think that we have great management talents, great management skills. “

Trump supported the Libyan intervention at the time. In fact, he was outraged before the intervention that there hadn’t been one according to Politifact:

“”I can’t believe what our country is doing,” Trump said, according to a BuzzFeed transcript. “Gaddafi in Libya is killing thousands of people, nobody knows how bad it is, and we’re sitting around we have soldiers all have the Middle East, and we’re not bringing them in to stop this horrible carnage and that’s what it is: It’s a carnage.”

Matt Laurer didn’t challenge any of Trump’s lies about his past positions, and his journalistic reputation suffered badly for it last night.

Trump also said that Russia wants to defeat Daesh/ ISIL as badly as the US does and there should be more cooperation between the two. But in fact, Daesh doesn’t pose that big a danger to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, since it is out in the eastern desert. So Russia is not in fact that interested in it, since it is in Syria to prop up al-Assad. Russia wants to destroy the Syrian Army of Conquest or Nusra Front, the leader of which is an al-Qaeda operative. The US complains that the fundamentalist militias vetted by the CIA are cooperating too closely with al-Qaeda for it to be possible to separate the two out in bombing raids. Actually I’d say that if the militias you support are so intertwined with al-Qaeda that they’d get hit if al-Qaeda was bombed, then you haven’t done a very good job of vetting.

Then Trump went on to heap praise on Vladimir Putin and to call him a better leader than President Obama. He kept saying Putin had called Trump “brilliant,” which he didn’t (not sure if praise from an old KGB operator is high praise or just manipulative).

Lauer was criticized for letting Trump get away without answering any substantial questions about his Middle East policy.

It was a low, wretched performance, by the network and both candidates, full of fluff and posturing and Alice in Wonderland statements of policy along with an almost complete derogation of authority by the anchors. It marked a low point in our national discourse about world politics.

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.