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Cliché and Banality at the Debates: Trump and Clinton on the Middle East

Watching them both yacking on about the Middle East as a pink dawn glowed from behind the Lebanese mountains above Beirut, I found the Trump-Clinton show a grimly instructive experience. In the few hundred miles east and south of Lebanon, hundreds are dying every week – in Syria, in Yemen, in Iraq – and yet there were the terrible twins playing “I can beat Isis better than you can beat Isis”. Was this what the Arab world really meant to the reality show participants at the unpronounceable university campus on Long Island?

What was it Trump said to Clinton? “You’ve been fighting Isis your entire adult life!” And what did Clinton say? “Well at least I have a plan to fight Isis!” After an hour, I was praying that the Lebanese slept on amid the mountains. Please God there would be electricity cuts in Aleppo and Baghdad and Sanaa – just for these 90 minutes, you understand – so that the people enduring the Middle East tragedy did not witness how the next US president was using their homelands as a movie back-lot.

“He has no plan to defeat Isis,” quoth Madame Clinton. But does anyone? It’s a pity, for example, that they didn’t outline “plans” for justice, freedom and dignity in the Middle East and an end to the policy of bombing, bombing, bombing and more bombing that now seems to equal political initiative in the Arab world. But of course they did not, for all this was slotted into the last bit of the CNN show, the climax which was – wearingly and predictably – entitled “American security”.

There was a very brief mention by Trump of “Bibi Netanyahu” that must have left many American viewers completely floored – save for those supporters of Israel to whom, of course, it was addressed – but that was all we heard about another small conflict in the Middle East. Cliché and banality rubbed up against each other. Clinton claimed that Obama had stopped those “centrifuges that were whirling away” in Iran – I’m not sure that centrifuges do “whirl”, though Clinton may have been talking about the “whirling dervishes” who also live in the region. And then Trump came up with his apple pie throwaway.

“The Middle East is a total mess,” and Iran would soon be a “major power” – as if Iran was not already a major power in the region, as it has been for around 3,000 years. But what particular “mess” was he talking about? The “mess” in the hospitals of eastern Aleppo? The “mess” of Egypt’s civil rights – though I do suspect that Brigadier-General-President al-Sissi’s version would rather appeal to Trump – or the “mess” left behind by the bombing of the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Afghanistan? Or perhaps the “mess” of Palestine – another word that mercifully was not dwelt upon by the duo who both plan to rule America? Didn’t “Bibi” mention that to Trump? Or the “mess” of Nato, whose killing of Serbs (and quite a few Kosovo Muslims) in 1999 was followed by the Alliance’s support for the Afghan war but which, according to Trump, “does not focus on terror”?

“We have to knock the hell out of Isis – and we have to do it fast,” the great man told the world. Well, sure, but haven’t we all been knocking the hell out of Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, even Lebanon (a few years ago), and achieving the constant rebirth of ever more vicious warriors, of which Isis – heaven spare us the thought – may soon generate another, even worse progeny? Trump apparently believed that Isis would not exist if Obama had left 10,000 US troops in Iraq – a strategy Isis would surely have applauded – while Clinton moaned on about how the Iraqi government “would not protect American troops”.

And there you have it, I suppose. It is the Arab world’s job, isn’t it, to “protect” America in its various military occupations, or – at the very least – the task (yes, this old chestnut was indeed produced) of “our friends in the Middle East”. And who were they, I wondered? Those fantastic Saudis who gave us 15 of the 9/11 hijackers? About the only nonsense left unuttered by Trump and Clinton was that Isis was born outside the United States. There they would have been on safe ground. Or would they? For I suspect there may be a growing number of Arabs who believe that Isis is indeed a child born in America.

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Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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