Amid the tawdry spectacle of the second presidential debate on Sunday, the brief discussion on the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo highlighted for many observers the fact that the future of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East appears to be a choice between incoherent nuclear posturing and "more bipartisan warmongering."
Debate moderator Martha Raddatz posed a question submitted by a voter: "If you were president what would you do about Syria and the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo? Isn't it much like the holocaust, when the U.S. waited too long before we helped?"
Describing the situation in Syria as "catastrophic," Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton reiterated her previous call for a "no-fly zone" and "safe zones" in Syria to be used as "leverage" during negotiations against Russia.
"There is a determined effort by Russian air force to destroy Aleppo in order to eliminate the last of Syrian rebels holding out against the Assad regime," she said. "We need to work more closely with partners and allies on the ground," she added, referring to the so-called "moderate rebels" being armed by the United States—a move that experts said has only prolonged the current state of war.
Following up, Raddatz asked the former secretary of state if she would "introduce the threat of U.S. military force beyond the no-fly zone to back up diplomacy."
Clinton responded, "I would not use American ground forces in Syria. I think that would be a very serious mistake." But military experts, including top U.S. General Joseph Dunford and Secretary of State John Kerry, have said that imposing a no-fly zone over Syria "would require us to go to war against Syria and Russia," a fact that many highlighted on social media after Sunday night's exchange:
— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) October 10, 2016
You can't do a no-fly zone unless you are prepared to fight the Russians in the air. That goes quickly to a place US isn't prepared to go.
— Spencer Ackerman (@attackerman) October 10, 2016
It really should be made more clear that a no fly zone in Syria could lead to war with Russia. Not just casually use it as a slogan #debate
— Eugene Puryear (@EugenePuryear) October 10, 2016
American "ground troops" would be necessitated by a "No Fly Zone," HRC's stated policy. But you won't get a followup on that from Raddatz.
— Michael Tracey (@mtracey) October 10, 2016
So Clinton just called for a no-fly zone in Syria. She's going to shoot down Russian planes?
— Shaun Walker (@shaunwalker7) October 10, 2016
Clinton also said she would support "the effort to investigate for war crimes committed by Syrians and Russians and hold them accountable," referring to recent calls made by the U.S. and other western powers.
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Alternately, her opponent, Donald Trump, failed to clearly articulate his plan, but seemed to throw his support behind the current bombing by Russian and Syrian forces, saying he believed we have to "get" the Islamic State (or ISIS) "before we get too much more involved."
"I don't like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS, Russia is killing ISIS, Iran is killing ISIS," he said.
When Raddatz pointed out that Trump's running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, last week also advocated for a "no-fly zone," Trump responded, "He and I haven't spoken and we don't agree." The split caused many to speculate on the validity of the Republican plan, and ticket.
Trump also used his response to advocate for a stronger U.S. nuclear weapons program.
He said that our nuclear weapons have "fallen behind" in comparison to Russia, which he said had "gone wild with their nuclear program."
"Russia is new in terms of nuclear. We are old, we are tired, we are exhausted in terms of nuclear, a very bad thing," the Republican nominee said.
Responding to the exchange on The Intercept's live blog of the debate, journalist Jeremy Scahill wrote, "The cartoonish villainy of Donald Trump is a major factor in distracting attention from the hawkish, neoliberal policies of Hillary Clinton."
"There is rarely a focus on Clinton's embrace of regime change, her role in creating the conditions, as Secretary of State, for the horror show currently unfolding in Yemen, or her paramilitarization of the State Department," he continued.
Scahill concluded that "both Clinton and Trump's candidacies' have fucked us—albeit in different ways." Whereas Trump has "empowered fascists, racists, and bigots," Clinton "represents more of the same bipartisan warmongering. And, under Obama, that has been met with a lot of silence and complicity from liberals. Depressing."
Watch the discussion on Syria below: