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US presidential candidates weigh in on Russia, Putin, Middle East

Al-Monitor takes the pulse of the US presidential candidates' varied stances on the Middle East crises and on Vladimir Putin and his role in international politics.
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump takes the stage at a campaign rally in Windham, New Hampshire, January 11, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder - RTX21VNU


Donald J. Trump:

Leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has famously suggested that he thinks he would “get along very well” with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and that the United States and Russia could find common ground in hitting the Islamic State (IS) in Syria if he were president. Putin, in turn, has praised Trump as a like-minded strongman with high poll numbers.

“I think that I would probably get along with him very well,” Trump said of Putin on CBS News’ "Face the Nation" on Oct. 11, 2015. "And I don't think you'd be having the kind of problems that you're having right now."

Regarding Putin intervening militarily in Syria, Trump said he supports it if Russia wants to bomb IS. “As far as him attacking [IS], I'm all for it. If he wants to be bombing the hell out of [IS], which he's starting to do, if he wants to be bombing [IS], let him bomb them,” Trump said. “Let him bomb them." 

Trump warmly welcomed Putin’s praise at a year-end press conference.

Trump is “very talented, no doubt about that," Putin said Dec. 17 at a press conference. “He is the absolute leader of the presidential race, as we see it today. He says that he wants to move to another level of relations, to a deeper level of relations with Russia. How can we not welcome that? Of course we welcome it.”

"It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond," Trump said in a statement released by his campaign the same day. "I have always felt that Russia and the United States should be able to work well with each other towards defeating terrorism and restoring world peace, not to mention trade and all of the other benefits derived from mutual respect."

“I’ve always felt fine about Putin,” Trump said in an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Dec. 18. “I think that he’s a strong leader. … I think he’s up in the 80s … and I don’t know who does the polls, maybe he does the polls, but I think they’re done by American companies, actually.”


Ted Cruz:

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has called Putin a bully and a dictator, and said the United States can make a show of strength with its air power in Syria, aggressively expand missile defenses in Eastern Europe and promote human rights to push back Putin and deter a resurgent Russia.

“In Syria we can't double down on the failed strategies that have given Putin his opportunity to intervene,” Cruz wrote in a CNN commentary Oct. 9. “It is dangerous to dictators like Putin when Americans remember their exceptionalism. The unique combination of power and principle that has made the United States the greatest force for good on the planet has historically posed a grave threat to repressive bullies.”

Cruz continued, “We have a successful model in front of us of how to deal with Russia without creating a diplomatic crisis … We can highlight human rights, and aggressively expand and enforce the Magnitsky Act, which targets Russian officials accused of human rights abuses. We can redouble our efforts to develop the defensive weapons that neutralized the offensive Soviet threat — particularly missile defense. … We should not only move quickly to install the canceled interceptor sites Putin opposed in Poland and the Czech Republic, but also to develop the next generation of systems that will only increase his discomfiture.”

After the assessment that IS was probably responsible for the downing of a Russian passenger plane that took off from Sharm el-Sheikh Egypt, Cruz said the tragedy could be an opportunity to direct Russia’s airstrikes in Syria against IS rather than having them hit more moderate Syria rebel groups.

"This is an opportunity for the United States to focus Russia's energy on [IS]," Cruz told CNN on Nov. 5. “And if they're responsible for this horrific terrorist attack, that's all the more reason for a concerted effort and a concerted commitment to destroy them.

"If you look right now, part of the problem is that Putin, I think, has taken the measure of the man in Barack Obama and doesn't respect him," Cruz said. "Once Putin determines that Obama's not credible, that he won't do what he says, that makes the prospect of our working together seriously to target [IS] a lot less plausible."

Marco Rubio:

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has called Putin a "gangster" who is seeking to challenge US dominance in the Middle East, prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and destroy NATO, and who needs to be confronted with a far more assertive American foreign policy. 

Putin “is exploiting a vacuum that this administration has left in the Middle East,” Rubio said at the Sept. 16 CNN Republican presidential debate:

“[Putin] wants to reposition Russia, once again, as a geopolitical force,” Rubio said. “He’s trying to destroy NATO. … Here’s what you’re going to see in the next few weeks: the Russians will begin to fly combat missions in that region, not just targeting [IS], but in order to prop up Assad. He will also, then, turn to other countries in the region and say, ‘America is no longer a reliable ally, Egypt. America is no longer a reliable ally, Saudi Arabia. Begin to rely on us.’”

“What he is doing is he is trying to replace us as the single most important power broker in the Middle East, and this president is allowing it.”

"At the end of the day, although Vladimir Putin is a gangster and a criminal, he's also a geopolitical actor who makes decisions on a cost-benefit analysis," Rubio told Fox News on Nov. 24. "He will have to save face, but ultimately he won't test the alliance if the alliance stands up to him, because he would lose in that confrontation, and that would be a bigger setback for him."

Rubio said Russia was deliberately attacking moderate rebel forces in Syria rather than IS.

"Vladimir Putin is deliberately targeting all the non-[IS] rebels,” Rubio said in an interview with Fox News on Oct. 2. “The more moderate they are, the more he's going to target them."

The United States and NATO need to make clear they will back up Turkey if Russia retaliates for Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian air force plane, he told Fox News on Nov. 24. “So it's important for us to be clear that we'll respond and defend Turkey,” Rubio said.


Ben Carson:

Former pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson has said Putin is a dangerous belligerent destabilizing the Middle East and threatening Eastern Europe, and the United States must stand up to him and enforce its threats to deter Russian adventurism.

“I would tell [Putin] that we are a peaceful nation. But we are not a marshmallow,” Carson told Yahoo News’ Katie Couric on Nov. 15. “And we will not allow the extension of his influence in places where we have an interest.” 

While saying he favors dialogue with the Russian president, Carson said the United States had to be firm and enforce any red lines that it sets. He advocated establishing a Syria no-fly zone on the Turkish-Syria border, and said the United States would have to shoot down a Russian plane if it violated it.

“We have to have a plan, we have to be willing to enforce that plan, and if we continue to back down, we will become a paper tiger,” Carson told Couric of vowing to enforce a Syria no-fly zone, even if Russia violated it and the United States had to shoot down a Russian plane.

Whatever happens next, we deal with it, but we can’t continue backing down because in the long run, that’ll hurt us,” Carson said.

To deter further Russia expansionism in Eastern Europe, the United States should place “one or two” armored brigades in the Baltic region, provide arms to Ukraine and upgrade the United States' nuclear arsenal, Carson also proposed in the Yahoo interview, the website reported.

“Vladimir Putin’s Russia has become dangerously belligerent,” Carson’s campaign website states. “It is actively destabilizing Ukraine, endangering Europe in the process and continuing to fuel destabilization in the Middle East.

“President Putin must come to learn that there will be grave and serious consequences when Russia engages in naked aggression against other sovereign nations and free peoples,” the Carson campaign site continued. “All options should remain on the table when dealing with international bullies such as President Putin.”

In early October, Carson bizarrely and inaccurately contended in multiple interviews that Putin, Mahmoud Abbas (now Palestinian Authority president) and Ali Khamenei (an ayatollah who is now Iran's supreme leader) had known each other in Moscow in 1968.

Putin "already has substantial ties in the Middle East," Carson told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Oct. 8. "In the class of 1968 at Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow, Mahmoud Abbas was one of the members of that class, and so was Ali Khamenei. And that's where they first established relationships with the young Vladimir Putin."


Jeb Bush:

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has called Putin a "bully” who needs to be confronted by a more assertive US president and more robust sanctions.

"How to deal with him is to confront him on his terms, not to create a more bellicose environment but to simply say that there is going to be a consequence," Bush said of Putin in an Oct. 13 Reuters interview.

"I wouldn't worry about antagonizing the Russians, for starters,” Bush added. “They should worry about antagonizing us.”

Responding to Trump’s assertion at the Nov. 10 Fox/Wall Street Journal Republican presidential candidates’ debate that the United States should not be the world’s policeman, Bush said Trump is absolutely wrong.

“We're not going to be the world's policeman, but we sure as heck better be the world's leader,” Bush said at the debate. “Without us leading, voids are filled, and the idea that it's a good idea for Putin to be in Syria, let [IS] take out Assad, and then Putin will take out [IS]? I mean, that's like a board game, that's like playing Monopoly or something. That's not how the real world works. We have to lead, we have to be involved. We should have a no-fly zone in Syria. They are barrel bombing the innocents in that country. If you're a Christian, increasingly in Lebanon, or Iraq or Syria, you're going to be beheaded. And, if you're a moderate Islamist, you're not going to be able to survive either. “




Hillary Clinton:

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who led the Obama administration’s first term efforts at a “reset” with Russia, probably has the most direct experience with the Putin government of all the 2016 presidential candidates, and the two leaders have indicated they are not very fond of each other. Clinton has said she thinks the United States needs to take a more assertive approach to Russian annexation of Crimea while indicating there is room for cooperation on diplomacy to try to end the Syrian war. Putin in turn has expressed irritation with Clinton’s tough statements and belittled them as a sign of weakness.

“I remain convinced that we need a concerted effort to really up the costs on Russia and in particular on Putin,” Clinton said at the Brookings Institution on Sept. 9. "I am in the category of people who wanted us to do more in response to the annexation of Crimea and the continuing destabilization of Ukraine."

"We can't dance around it anymore,” Clinton said. “We all wish it would go away. We all wish Putin would choose to modernize his country and move toward the West instead of sinking himself into historical roots of czar-like behavior, and intimidation along national borders and projecting Russian power in places like Syria and elsewhere."

"I think Russia's objectives are to stymie and to confront and undermine American power whenever and wherever they can. I don't think there's much to be surprised about them," she said.

"We have to do more to get back talking about how to we try to confine, contain, deter Russian aggression in Europe and beyond," she said. "And try to figure out what are the best tools for doing that.”

"I don’t admire very much about Mr. Putin, but the idea you can stand up and say ‘I will be your next president’? That has a certain, you know, attraction to it," Clinton also joked at the Brookings event.

Putin, in December 2011, accused then-Secretary of State Clinton of giving support to the Russian opposition protesting disputed parliamentary polls and his plans to return to the Russian presidency in 2012. Russian opposition leaders “heard the signal and with the support of the US State Department began active work," Putin said Dec. 8, 2011. "We are all grownups here. We all understand the organizers are acting according to a well-known scenario and in their own mercenary political interests.”

Putin apparently remained annoyed by Clinton three years later, but said they could manage to conduct themselves cordially if needed.

"It’s better not to argue with women," Putin said in a June 3, 2014, interview posted by the Kremlin.

"But Ms. Clinton has never been too graceful in her statements,” Putin said. “Still, we always met afterwards and had cordial conversations at various international events. I think even in this case we could reach an agreement. When people push boundaries too far, it’s not because they are strong but because they are weak. But maybe weakness is not the worst quality for a woman."

Despite their seemingly jaundiced views of each other, Clinton said that when it came to Syria, Russia would have to be part of the solution.

“We need to be putting together a coalition to support a no-fly zone,” Clinton said at a campaign event in Davenport, Iowa, on Oct. 6. “I think it’s complicated and the Russians would have to be part of it, or it wouldn’t work.”


Sen. Bernie Sanders:

In 1988, Sanders, then the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, traveled with his new wife to Yaroslavl, Russia, to inaugurate it as Burlington’s sister city.

The trip — misreported in some venues as Sanders “honeymooning” in the Soviet Union — is nevertheless perhaps illustrative of the generally more dovish worldview of the Vermont senator. Sanders, a Socialist who caucuses with the Democrats, urges more dialogue, diplomacy and cooperation with Russia to combat IS, and working in concert with the international community to enforce economic sanctions on Russia as an alternative to military confrontation.

"We have different points of view ... but Russia has got to join us,” Sanders said during a speech at Simpson College in Iowa on Nov. 16, CNN reported. “We are concerned about Iran, but Iran has to join us. We have concerns about Saudi Arabia, but Saudi Arabia has to join us. ... If all over the world these attacks are taking place, the world has got to come together."

"Of course I have concerns," Sanders said of Putin’s motives in Syria.

 “Historically, Russia has been, and will continue to be, a significant player in the international economic and diplomatic sphere,” the pro-Sanders campaign website Feel the Bern states.

“Bernie Sanders supports a strong, consistent stance with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin,” the campaign site says. “Bernie supports enforcing economic sanctions and international pressure as an alternative to any direct military confrontation when dealing with Russia. …The United States must collaborate to create a unified stance with our international allies in order to effectively address Russian aggression.”

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