In the last two years, the press has spilled a Niagara of ink to describe President Donald Trump’s lies, flipflops, personal weirdness, and sheer unsuitability for office. As for Vice President Michael Richard Pence, despite his hectoring insistence on being the chosen instrument of the Almighty, many observers have resignedly noted that at least he has had the relevant experience in state and federal government his boss lacks, and remains (if barely) within the spectrum of behaviors of the typical American officeholder. Some have even identified him as the anonymous author of the September 2018 New York Times op-ed blasting Trump.
But his January 16 speech announcing ISIS’s defeat should dispel any notion that Pence has the competence and good judgment necessary to govern. With his characteristic combination of smugness and robotic stiffness, he declared, “We are bringing our troops home. The caliphate has crumbled, and ISIS has been defeated."
One need not even engage in the argument over whether U.S. forces must withdraw from Syria or not—one could line up arguments on either side of the case—to recognize the fallacy of the vice president’s pronouncement. Conventional military force can seize territory from a group like ISIS and kill its adherents, but it cannot kill an ideology. Nor can military means alone “defeat” terrorism, which is a method, rather than a discrete and countable armed contingent with an order of battle. At best, military force can contain terrorism—but with the significant risk of stimulating local disaffection and terrorist recruitment.
Pence’s timing was even worse than his thesis. He delivered his address an hour after the U.S. Central Command announced the deaths of four U.S. personnel in Syria, an incident for which ISIS claimed responsibility. While the press widely noted the jarring discrepancy between his remarks and the fatal attack, it was silent about the strangeness of the country’s second highest elected official, a person with his own national security staff, blithely going on with such comments after the military had already tweeted to the world about the deadly attack.
Was he not accompanied to the speech venue by a member of his national security staff, or at least an aide capable of surfing the news sites on a cell phone for breaking stories that might affect the prepared remarks? Or was Pence actually informed about the Syria news and mechanically went ahead with the speech anyway? Either way, he doesn’t sound like the leader we need to manage a potential Cuban missile crisis.
Another discordant note: it was not as if Pence were haranguing a group of local notables in a Shriner’s hall in Muscatine, Iowa. In that sort of venue he could probably get away with saying more or less anything. Instead, it was an address to the Global Chiefs of Mission conference at the State Department—a foreign policy-savvy audience at a facility equipped for secure communication with all the nodes of the national command structure. That he thought he could pull the wool over their eyes with cheap talk of victory is one of those ineffable mysteries of faith.
A source who moves in Republican circles informs me that with the departure of Nick Ayers, Pence’s chief of staff, the entire White House is virtually bereft of anyone with the knowledge, experience, and judgment to at least keep the trains running on time, which Ayers managed to do. This lack of expertise would seem to apply to the speech: the day of the Syria attack, we were told by his press secretary Alyssa Farah that the vice president was “monitoring the situation."
Ms. Farah’s background merits explaining: Her father, Joseph Farah, reckoned to be a right-wing political extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center, is editor-in-chief of WorldNetDaily, a publication jocularly referred to as “WingNutDaily.” Its greatest hits, as enumerated by the Center, include a six-part “investigation” claiming that eating soy causes homosexuality. Earlier in her career, Alyssa had a stint at her father’s publication, cranking out pieces with the requisite amount of truthiness.
Even as the Syria incident was all over the media, Pence released a statement—presumably with his press secretary’s help in drafting—that, although offering condolences for the fallen, doubled down on his original, discordant, claim: "Thanks to the courage of our Armed Forces, we have crushed the ISIS caliphate and devastated its capabilities.”
Nor were the Syria comments a fluke. The weekend after that incident, the day before the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday, Pence attempted to justify Trump’s border-wall obsession by repeating what he alleged was one of his favorite quotes from King: “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”
While Republicans typically reveal a premeditated cynicism and effrontery whenever they invoke King (“If Martin Luther King were alive today, he’d be a Republican” is a common trope), it is possible that Pence’s characteristic sanctimonious guilelessness actually led him to believe that echoing a martyred exponent of nonviolence would vindicate throwing hundreds of thousands of people out of work to extort Congress’s capitulation to the wall.
While he has been heavily overshadowed by the wall-to-wall coverage of his boss’s antics, there has always been plenty of available evidence of Mike Pence’s deeply troubling dogmatism and sycophancy. His remarks on Syria are further indication of his indifference to facts, his intellectual incuriosity, and his incompetence—qualities that make him unqualified for his present job, let alone the only higher one.