What Did Clinton and Trump Say About the Middle East in the First Presidential Debate?

Netanyahu gets a nod from Trump as he spar with Clinton over ISIS, Iran nuclear deal - a look at what presidential candidates said about the Mideast during their first debate.

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks as Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton listens during their first  debate at in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks as Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton listens during their first debate at in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. Credit: Rick Wilking, Reuters
Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer

If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wasn’t “a happy camper” when Donald Trump met with him in his Manhattan apartment on Sunday, he may have been even less so after watching the first presidential debate Monday night. 

One presumes that Netanyahu woke up at 3 A.M. Israel time, along with the country’s journalists and political junkies when Israeli television broadcast the debate live with a full panel of commentators, despite the hour. 

Watch: Highlights from Clinton-Trump debate

If he did - and hoped the recent meetings with the candidates would have focused the spotlight on Israel, he would have been disappointed. Netanyahu was mentioned just once - not by his full name, but by his nickname, at the tail end of an argument over the nuclear deal with Iran. “I met with Bibi Netanyahu the other day, believe me, he is not a happy camper” said Trump, before calling the pact “one of the worst deals ever made by any country in history.”

Hillary Clinton didn’t discuss Netanyahu at all, and neither candidate mentioned Israel by name, though, to be fair none of moderator Lester Holt’s questions touched directly on Israel or the Palestinian conflict at all. (That fact in itself was telling in a debate that was billed as addressing the issue of terror.) 

The first mention of the Middle East in the debate occurred when Trump discussed it in the context of the U.S. economy, which he described - as he does many things - as a “disaster,” blaming the financial situation, among other things, on overseas adventures. 

“The worst of all things has happened,” Trump said. “We owe $20 trillion, and we're a mess. We haven't even started. And we've spent $6 trillion in the Middle East, according to a report that I just saw. Whether it's 6 or 5, but it looks like it's 6, $6 trillion in the Middle East, we could have rebuilt our country twice.”

The next discussion of the region came when Holt asked the candidates about cyberwarfare and Trump chose to pivot away from Russian hacking - choosing not to address Clinton’s charges of his excessive praise of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Instead, he moved the conversation to ISIS and its use of the Internet. 

Clinton responded, “I have put forth a plan to defeat ISIS. It does involve going after them online. I think we need to do much more with our tech companies to prevent ISIS and their operatives from being able to use the Internet to radicalize, even direct people in our country and Europe and elsewhere. But we also have to intensify our air strikes against ISIS and eventually support our Arab and Kurdish partners to be able to actually take out ISIS in Raqqa, end their claim of being a Caliphate.

"We're making progress. Our military is assisting in Iraq. And we're hoping that within the year we'll be able to push ISIS out of Iraq and then, you know, really squeeze them in Syria.”

Holt then turned to Trump, asking him how he would deal with the ISIS threat abroad and its use of domestic terrorism within the U.S. 

Instead of outlining his own plan, Trump used the opportunity to go on the attack, reiterating his claim that Clinton herself is responsible for the ISIS problem in the first place. “Secretary Clinton is talking about taking out ISIS. ‘We will take out ISIS.’ Well, President Obama and Secretary Clinton created a vacuum the way they got out of Iraq, because they got out - what, they shouldn't have been in, but once they got in, the way they got out was a disaster. And ISIS was formed. So she talks about taking them out. She's been doing it a long time. She's been trying to take them out for a long time. But they wouldn't have even been formed if they left some troops behind, like 10,000 or maybe something more than that. And then you wouldn't have had them.

Or, as I've been saying for a long time, and I think you'll agree, because I said it to you once, had we taken the oil - and we should have taken the oil - ISIS would not have been able to form either, because the oil was their primary source of income. And now they have the oil all over the place, including the oil - a lot of the oil in Libya, which was another one of her disasters.”

Trump’s assertions led the candidates into the longstanding dispute - which they returned to repeatedly during the debate - over whether and when Trump ever supported the invasion of Iraq, which he denies, despite consistent evidence to the contrary.  

Later in the debate, Trump returned to the Middle East as representing one of the Obama administration’s worst failures, pointing the finger at Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State: “You look at the Middle East, it's a total mess. Under your direction, to a large extent you started the Iran deal, that's another beauty where you have a country that was ready to fall, I mean, they were doing so badly. They were choking on the sanctions. And now they're going to be actually probably a major power at some point pretty soon, the way they're going.”

Clinton defended her record: “With respect to Iran, when I became secretary of state, Iran was weeks away from having enough nuclear material to form a bomb. They had mastered the nuclear fuel cycle under the Bush administration. They had built covert facilities. They had stocked them with centrifuges that were whirling away. And we had sanctioned them. I voted for every sanction against Iran when I was in the Senate, but it wasn't enough. So I spent a year-and-a-half putting together a coalition that included Russia and China to impose the toughest sanctions on Iran. And we did drive them to the negotiating table. And my successor, John Kerry, and President Obama got a deal that put a lid on Iran's nuclear program without firing a single shot. That's diplomacy. That's coalition-building. That's working with other nations.”

Trump brought the Iran deal up once more in a discussion of North Korean nuclear weapons, telling Clinton: “The worst deal I think I've ever seen negotiated that you started is the Iran deal. Iran is one of their biggest trading partners. Iran has power over North Korea. And when they made that horrible deal with Iran, they should have included the fact that they do something with respect to North Korea. And they should have done something with respect to Yemen and all these other places. And when asked to Secretary Kerry, why didn't you do that? Why didn't you add other things into the deal? One of the great giveaways of all time, of all time, including $400 million in cash. Nobody's ever seen that before. That turned out to be wrong. It was actually $1.7 billion in cash, obviously, I guess for the hostages. It certainly looks that way.

"So you say to yourself, why didn't they make the right deal? This is one of the worst deals ever made by any country in history. The deal with Iran will lead to nuclear problems. All they have to do is sit back 10 years, and they don't have to do much. And they're going to end up getting nuclear. I met with Bibi Netanyahu the other day. Believe me, he's not a happy camper.”

Clinton shot back: “There's no doubt that we have other problems with Iran. But personally, I'd rather deal with the other problems having put that lid on their nuclear program than still to be facing that. And Donald never tells you what he would do. Would he have started a war? Would he have bombed Iran? If he's going to criticize a deal that has been very successful in giving us access to Iranian facilities that we never had before, then he should tell us what his alternative would be. But it's like his plan to defeat ISIS. He says it's a secret plan, but the only secret is that he has no plan.”

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