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Week In Politics: Presidential Candidates Outline Foreign Policy Goals


The war in Syria is just one of many concerns on the foreign policy agenda for the next U.S. president, and that agenda dominated the campaign this week, especially after an NBC News forum on national security where the candidates appeared back to back.


DONALD TRUMP: Under the leadership of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the generals have been reduced to rubble.


HILLARY CLINTON: We are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again, and we're not putting ground troops into Syria.

CORNISH: Our regular political commentators are here to give us their take on that and more. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Hey there, E.J.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

CORNISH: And David Brooks of The New York Times, welcome to you.

DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Good to be here.

CORNISH: All right, so we just heard tape from the candidates. And I'll start with you, E.J., because as soon as I heard that ever again out of Hillary Clinton's mouth, it seemed like the kind of pledge that could come back to haunt a candidate - right? - especially on foreign policy.

DIONNE: Any campaign promise on anything can come back to haunt a candidate, whether it's I'll never raise taxes or I won't send troops. FDR famously said in 1940 that our boys wouldn't be fighting in Europe, and of course they were. I think what she was trying to do is to make clear, both to Bernie Sanders supporters and to Trump's more dovish supporters, that she is not - does not have what Trump called a happy trigger.

But I think in the end that Trump left a lot of issues on the table that are going to be very harmful to him over time. One is - or are all the nice words he said about Vladimir Putin, which a lot of Republicans are upset about. The second was his statement that we should have just taken the oil in Iraq. It's not clear what that means. And then when he characterized his confidential security briefing and said the briefers seemed to be against President Obama - that seemed like a violation of the rules of the briefing. So I think those are the things that are going to stick to Trump for a while.

CORNISH: You mentioned the comments about Vladimir Putin, and, David, I want to ask you about that because, you know, as we're going to hear in the program, the U.S. is in the middle of struggling with negotiations with Russia in terms of Syria. I mean, what do you think of sort of where Trump went with all this?

BROOKS: This seems to be his sincere belief because he keeps coming back to Putin. He keeps coming back to authoritarianism. And so this is - it's sort of amazing, but it is something he has actually stuck to over a period of time. When I look back on the forum that we had this week, I thought they both lost. You know, sort of America lost. He was saying things - as E.J. pointed out - which were just ridiculous - the support for Putin, the oil comment, the idea that we should leave back some core of people and take Iraq's oil is moral idiocy. First of all, it wouldn't work. Second of all, it's called imperialism. And it's been done and it didn't work, and it's an outrage. And it sort of goes under the radar because he's just ill-informed about what it would actually take.

She was just as bad, but in a different way. She's certainly well-informed, but she was so ungracious and so unpleasant and so evasive that I think on style points, which matter a lot in these sort of things, she showed just tremendous vulnerability. And so we have two campaigns that are not doing well and the relative demerits of each on any given week are almost academic sometimes.

CORNISH: Can we talk about style for a second - because some of the things you're saying about Hillary Clinton - I think that people were actually critiquing the forum moderator. Matt Lauer of NBC was accused of failing to fact-check false claims by Donald Trump, that he didn't - and claims that Lauer didn't treat the candidates equally. This raises questions about what people expect out of a moderator going forward, especially with the formal debates set to start this month. E.J., what were the challenges revealed to you here?

DIONNE: Well, first, I think one of Matt Lauer's problems is he - so much attention was given to the email controversy that there wasn't as much time left for all the substantive issues there. He came under attack for that. He interrupted Clinton a lot and pushed her in a way he didn't push Trump. I think there was criticism of that. But I think the lasting effect may be that he didn't challenge Trump when Trump said I opposed the Iraq War when the evidence is he didn't. He actually supported the Iraq War and only opposed it later.

CORNISH: And that's something - yeah - go ahead.

DIONNE: What I was going to say is before the debates, before this event, a lot of people remembered Candy Crowley for challenging Mitt Romney on the facts back in 2012, which I thought was a reasonable thing to do, but she got a lot of grief for it. I think the moderators might have stayed away from challenging the candidates, particularly Trump, on the facts. I think now after all the critique of Lauer there will be an inclination to challenge a candidate when a candidate says something that's flatly untrue. And honestly, I think that is a role for the moderator because candidates can make themselves look bad if they challenge too hard.

CORNISH: David, Chris Wallace of Fox News is set to moderate. And when asked a question about what he's going to do in these scenarios, he says I don't view my role as truth-squadding. I think that's a step too far. If people want to do it after the debate, fine. It's not my role.

BROOKS: Yeah, I would come out in the middle there. I thought Matt Lauer got hammered because Hillary Clinton did badly. And whenever a candidate does badly, the tendency on that side's partisan is to attack the moderator. I thought he did fine, but she did poorly and Trump did poorly. And so people are unhappy with the moderator. I do think one or two fact-checks is fine for a moderator, and probably the right thing to do, as Candy Crowley did. But the idea that this is going to be a debate between the moderator and the candidates is the wrong idea.

I work with a guy - Jim Lehrer - who hosted a lot of debates. And I thought he had the right philosophy - let the candidates express themselves. Let them out, take them off their chain and step back and let them do that, and let people decide.

DIONNE: I think there's some truth to that, but I think that a - when a candidate says something that just is untrue and the moderator can say wait a minute, you said X, I think that's a fair journalistic act for a moderator. I agree, I'd rather have moderators be unobtrusive when they're arguing about policy, but there is a journalistic moral to fact-check.

CORNISH: But has that age passed? I mean, is it simply too politicized? When we look back at some of the recent campaigns and there's such a fight over who will moderate in the first place, it doesn't seem - it's, like, a thankless job.

DIONNE: It is.

BROOKS: It's totally thankless, but I happen to think the people they got this year are pretty good people, and they're good journalists. And the campaign, the debates are really settled by the relationship between the two people. And it's ultimately their responsibility to take what's given to them.

DIONNE: Yeah, I agree. I think these moderators - I'm inclined to think they'll be good moderators.

CORNISH: That's E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Thank you, E.J.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

CORNISH: And David Brooks of The New York Times. Thanks for coming in.

BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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