Donald Trump would have "a very good relationship with many foreign leaders," he said Wednesday at NBC's candidate forum, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. That's important, he said, because better ties with Moscow would let the U.S. and Russia work together to fight the Islamic State.
"And, you know, the beautiful part of getting along?" Trump asked. "Russia wants to defeat ISIS as badly as we do."
Is it true that Russia "wants to defeat ISIS" as badly as the U.S. does?
The Short Answer
The Long Answer
Moscow said that it was intervening in Syria to help fight terrorism, but only a small percentage of its airstrikes there have actually targeted the Islamic State, the al-Qaida-aligned al Nusra Front or other extremist groups. Most of its work in Syria has been in support of its longtime client, President Bashar Assad, and his regime focused in the southern capital of Damascus.
American officials at the White House, State Department and Pentagon repeated almost daily that Russia's actions in Syria did not match its public commitments. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Russia's deployment was "doomed to fail."
Now, President Obama and other American leaders are trying to get Russia to change its tack — to agree to a deal that would focus on ISIS and extremist groups and, ideally, spare the more moderate anti-government rebels the U.S. and other allies have supported against Assad. Obama points out that the U.S. has cooperated with Russia on counterterrorism cases and that Russia has its own worries about the threat from radical groups. Many foreign fighters in Syria come from Russia or its neighboring provinces.
Moscow, however, holds most of the cards in Syria. It has made a major commitment to the regime and has helped Assad turn the tide against the anti-government rebels backed by the West. Despite weeks of effort by Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian leaders haven't shown anything like eagerness to conclude any deal, and State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Wednesday that as of now Kerry has no plans to return to Moscow for more talks. Asked whether the Russians are simply stalling — stringing along Washington while they continue to press on the battlefield in support of Damascus — Toner said:
"I don't, but again, I can't speak to what their motivations may be or what their strategy may be. All I can say is that they have a particular set of issues or positions that they want to see through this agreement. We have our own."
Also at the candidate forum, Hillary Clinton defended her role in the Obama administration helping get European and Middle Eastern allies together for the campaign to attack Libya in 2011.
"Taking that action was the right decision," Clinton said at a NBC forum on Wednesday. "Not taking it, and permitting there to be an ongoing civil war in Libya, would have been as dangerous and threatening as what we are now seeing in Syria."
Did the U.S. prevent "an ongoing civil war in Libya"?
The Short Answer
The Long Answer
By his account, President Obama was never eager to get involved in Libya. But he acceded to his advisers' desire to intervene after it appeared the army of strongman Col. Muammar Gaddafi was going to sack the eastern city of Benghazi. An alliance of opposition forces there, energized by the regional Arab Spring, were opposing the regime in Tripoli. Obama said that American and international power was needed to stop the attack and prevent a bloodbath. Clinton played a leading role in recruiting NATO and other powers to the cause.
But "Operation Odyssey Dawn," as the Pentagon named it, continued beyond defending Benghazi. American, European and some Arab warplanes destroyed Libya's air defense systems, then its warplanes, then much of its military. With Western air power, the anti-government forces were able to take control of more of the country. Ultimately Gaddafi was toppled, then captured and executed.
But neither Washington, London, Paris nor the other governments involved wanted an Iraq-style post-conflict follow-up, so Libya has been without a consistent central government since. The U.S. struggled with a plan to stand up a new military force, which it ultimately abandoned, and the lawlessness and violence in Libya worsened. Attackers raided the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi in 2012, killing the ambassador and others. Violence in Tripoli became so intense in 2014 the U.S. Embassy there closed. In April, Obama called the bungled aftermath of the Libya intervention "the worst mistake" of his presidency.
Not only did the U.S. and international campaign in Libya not prevent ongoing conflict there; it created another ungoverned refuge for the Islamic State. Local groups re-branded themselves under the ISIS flag and leaders from the core group began to travel from their headquarters in Syria and Iraq. The U.S. began a counterterrorism campaign, striking targets from the air with drones and human-piloted fighter aircraft. Those airstrikes continue today from an amphibious assault ship in the Mediterranean, the USS Wasp.
Washington is supporting a fledgling government in the Libyan city of Sirte, but it is only one of several organizations competing to become the new ruling authority.