Lee Smith is one of America’s most respected scholars of and voices on the complexities of the conflicts ripping through the Middle East. He is the author of The Consequences of Syria and The Strong Horse. Smith joined me Thursday morning to comprehensively fact check the claims made by Secretary Clinton and Senator Kaine not just in the debate Tuesday night but throughout the campaign:
HH: Aleppo is under siege. There is a genocide underway, and it came up on Tuesday night. And when I heard so much talk about Syria, I thought of Lee Smith from the Weekly Standard. He’s the author of The Strong Horse and of Consequences of Syria. He joins me now. Lee, welcome, it’s good to talk to you.
LS: Thanks, Hugh. It’s always a pleasure to be with you. Thank you very kindly for having me.
HH: I wonder what you thought, and by the way, you can follow Lee on Twitter, and you ought to, @LeeSmithTWS, because he works for the Weekly Standard, @Lee SmithTWS. What did you make of the discussion, or actually the continual interruption and diversion from the discussion of what is happening in Syria?
LS: Yeah, right. Look, I mean I think that the, from what I hear from different people, both campaigns would like to present the idea that they’re going to be fairly forward-leaning, or much more forward-leaning than this administration has been on Syria. Whether or not that’s the case, I think that right now, this White House has locked in certain facts, and from what I hear from different people, one of the things that both the Syrian regime, the Assad regime and the Russians are trying to do is trying to establish certain facts on the ground for when the next administration comes to office, which I think is a serious thing for both the Obama administration right now to take into account, and for both the Trump and Clinton campaigns to reckon with. And I’m not sure to what extent they are.
HH: Now Lee, you are my fact checker more than anybody else on matters in this region because of your long experience and deep knowledge of the region, your time spent there. I want to check a few things with you.
HH: Number one…
LS: Thanks, I appreciate that.
HH: Did not enforcing the red line have consequences? Or was that actually, as President Obama has sought to portray it in a number of interviews, including Jeffrey Goldberg, a strategically wise choice?
LS: Well, I mean, I’ve written about that a few time now. No, I think it was catastrophic, and I think the fact that the President boasts about this, that this was him liberating himself from the Washington playbook, is frankly monstrous. I think that your listeners, and you and I, anywhere we can go in the world outside of the United States, I mean, of course in the United States as well, but if we could talk to foreign officials, talk to people who are in the know about different aspects of foreign policy, everyone around the world, it’s not just the Middle East, everyone is appalled by the fact that the President did not enforce an American red line at this time. We’ve seen what’s happened over the last three years. And I, you know, I mean, a number of people are writing about this now as well. But to say that one of the main reasons that this has happened is because of the Iran deal. The President wanted to preserve his foreign policy legacy, namely the Iran deal, and this is why, you know, Assad has had a free ride for the last five and a half years now. It’s monstrous.
HH: The second fact check, does the Iran deal, as Tim Kaine repeatedly said, prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons?
LS: No, I think lots of people, and including my friend and colleague, Omri Ceren, whom I also would recommend listeners follow on Twitter, who’s got fantastic information on the Iran deal since, I mean, for several years now, but Omri retweeted something that I believe that ABC News had tweeted, saying that no, this is outright incorrect. No, and this is the administration itself does not say that this is the case. They say that they have been postponing the Iran deal. The President said himself that within 15 years, there, now we have reason to believe it’s going to be much shorter, within 15 years, they will have an industrial size nuclear weapons arsenal. It’s an enormous issue, so no, Tim Kaine was incorrect about that. Senator Kaine was incorrect.
HH: The next fact check goes to Russia. The choice of words here, I think, is inconsequential, but Vladimir Putin has been referred to as a strong leader by Donald Trump, and a decisive leader by me in the Middle East in that he has pursued Russia’s historic ambitions to assert Russia into the Middle East, even at the expense of the welfare of his people. And I believe he has been successful in doing so, because Russian flyers are now using Iranian airbases. They are allied with Syria’s Assad, and they are working with Hezbollah. Has Putin been successful in pursuing that strategic advantage that Russia has always pursued?
LS: Let me put it like this, which I think you may be interested to hear. I think that everything Governor Pence said last night about Putin was exactly correct. I think that he has certainly proven himself to be a stronger leader. I mean, when you talk about, he did not say he was a better leader. But a stronger leader? Yes. Certainly, Vladimir Putin is pursuing Russian interests. Is he doing monstrous things? Absolutely. Has the president of the United States given the Russians room to walk over not just American interest and American allies, but also Syrians? Yes, absolutely. No, Putin has pursued Russian interests very avidly and very seriously and very successfully, and we’ll have to see what happens with the next administration. But clearly, clearly this administration has let, and it’s not just now. It’s not just like the Russians walked in to escalate last September. The Obama administration, the Obama White House, has been fielding or has been dispatching everything off to the Russians that it didn’t want to take responsibility for. They’ve been using the Russian veto by proxy at the U.N. Security Council for five and a half years. It’s been going on typically. This is nothing new. This is a horrible thing. And the idea, look, the idea that Donald Trump is being attacked by, Donald Trump is being attacked for being a pro-Putin figure. I see this as an entire whitewashing of the Obama administration’s record with Putin and with Russia. It’s a horrible thing that’s going on. Whatever your listeners, or whatever we think about Donald Trump, the fact is they’re attacking this to whitewash the Obama administration’s record with Russia, especially in Syria.
HH: Let me ask my next fact check, the status of forces agreement that was not concluded by President Obama and Hillary Clinton. There’s much misinformation about this. What happened? Who is responsible? Did the failure to negotiate it and the withdrawal of American troops lead to the rise of ISIS?
LS: Yes, of course. I mean, you know, and I think that everyone has been pretty clear on that, that it’s, you know, that it needed, what the status of forces agreement needed was the personal involvement of the president of the United States. Look, President Obama campaigned against the Iraq war. There was no way that he was ever going to argue seriously for the status of forces agreement. He had an interest in turning Iraq into a version of Vietnam. This is what he did. This was the project from the outset. So I mean, absolutely, and this is what gave rise. We all know what the surge was about, right? The surge was getting Arab tribes, Iraqi tribes, Sunni tribes to fight al Qaeda in Iraq, to fight the foreign fighters. But to do that, they needed to get, the administration needed to get the Arab tribes on board by saying look, we’re not asking you to engage an Arab Sunni civil war. We’ll take on the Shia as well, we’ll take on the Shia militias. The Obama administration, on the other hand, has used the Shia militias to fight against Sunnis. No, this is absolutely insane.
HH: All right, two more to go. In Egypt, Mubarak was undermined. I believe this is one of the great undiscussed failures of Hillary Clinton that Mubarak was undermined and he fell, replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood and then propped up, the Muslim Brotherhood was, by Obama and Clinton, only to be overthrown by al-Sisi, with whom they are not happy. Am I correct, Lee Smith?
LS: Yeah, no, I mean, they’re not happy with Sisi. I mean, I have to say it’s unclear to me, and maybe to our listeners and certainly to others who will have better information on to what extent or exactly what the former Secretary of State’s position on this was. But I know that certainly, the former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates and others argued to support Mubarak. I think that probably, I just don’t know exactly what Secretary Clinton’s position was at the time. Yeah, but I certainly believe that Hosni Mubarak was a valuable American ally, and I think this was an enormous error of the Obama administration.
HH: Last fact check, Libya. How much responsibility does Hillary Clinton bear for the situation in Libya? And what is that situation?
LS: I mean, the thing that I would point to, I would point to the idea that Secretary Clinton was at the time pointing at the responsibility of this video, which I think is obscene. I mean, I also believe that in some ways, Secretary Clinton was probably involved and concerned about what happened on the ground. But the fact that she continued to publicize this administration talking point that it was about a video that was made, this was the attack on Benghazi, yeah, I think that’s obscene. But what she actually did on the ground, I hear from other people that she was actually, you know, she was actually concerned and somewhat involved.
HH: Let me now conclude by asking you about the opinion issue. This is not a fact check. If you’re the prime minister of Israel, and you face an attack in the next few years, Lee Smith, you’re Benjamin Netanyahu, who would you rather call in the White House? This is a hard question – Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?
LS: I’m not sure. I can’t really speak for the government of Israel. I mean, I would say that, I’d say that Secretary Clinton’s record is not as good as many people want to make it out to be. I think that she has a bad record. I think that one of the things that could have happened is that Secretary Clinton could have trashed the Iran deal, right? She could have turned around against it, and lots of Democratic Senators would have said okay, this is the putative next leader of the Democratic Party. If she’s against the deal, then we’re free to break loose. She didn’t. We can all understand the political reasons why she did not. She wanted the President’s support on this. But the fact that she didn’t, should we trust her now to crash the Iran deal? Should we trust her now to do different things? That’s not clear to me.
HH: I want to close by talking about Gary Johnson. Many people who don’t like Trump are just going to throw their vote away, they say, and cast a protest vote for Gary Johnson. In so doing, though, they will be endorsing a man who said to, Maggie Haberman quotes him in the New York Times today, pressed four times on whether he saw moral equivalence between death caused by the United States directly or indirectly and mass killings of civilians by Mr. Assad and his allies, Mr. Johnson made clear that he did. “Well, no, of course not. We’re so much better than all that, Mr. Johnson, a former New Mexico governor said, sarcastically. We’re so much better when in Afghanistan, we bomb the hospital and 60 people are killed in the hospital.” What do you make of that moral ignorance?
LS: I think Gary Johnson’s record, I’ll just go back to his statement about what is Aleppo. I think it speaks for itself. I think this is a man who is not particularly engaged or particularly concerned with the foreign policy interests of the United States or our allies, or how to keep Americans safe. I’m not a big Gary Johnson fan, to keep it short.
HH: Neither am I, and 30 seconds, I think it’s morally vacuous to vote for him. I think, it’s an abdication of moral judgment. You might not vote for Trump, but you should vote for Trump or Clinton, not this moron.
LS: I think there are probably other, there are probably other candidates who would be reasonable libertarian candidates. I think that what I’ve heard from Gary Johnson, I’m the opposite of impressed.
HH: Lee Smith, always a pleasure. Thank you. Follow him on Twitter, @LeeSmithTWS.
End of interview.