JERUSALEM – In a high-stakes showdown that was far more civil but no less combative than last week’s presidential debate in Ohio, Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris squared off in Salt Lake City, Utah, Wednesday night for the first and only American vice presidential debate.
Given that Donald Trump is 74 years old and battling the coronavirus, and Joe Biden will turn 78 in November and has made numerous gaffes on the campaign trail, the event drew far more attention and had far more import than any previous vice presidential debate.
Many Americans – and certainly many here in Israel, throughout the Middle East and around the world – believe either Pence or Harris could wind up being the next president of the United States sooner rather than later.
The administration’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, the U.S. economy, China policy, race relations, the Supreme Court, abortion policy dominated the night.
But Israel and Middle East issues also played a starring role.
Fifty minutes into the 90-minute event, moderator Susan Page of USA Today asked the candidates to focus on foreign policy.
“Sen. Harris, we’ve seen changes in the role of the United States in terms of global leadership over the past four years,” said Page. “And of course times do change. What’s your definition? We’ve seen strains with China, of course, as the vice president mentioned, we’ve seen strains with our traditional allies in NATO and elsewhere. What is your definition of the role of American leadership in 2020?”
Harris, the junior senator from California who only began her term in office in January 2017, began with a blistering attack on the Trump-Pence team.
“So, I love talking with Joe about a lot of these issues and Joe, I think he said it quite well. He says, ‘Foreign policy, it might sound complicated, but really it’s relationships.’ Just think about it as relationships. So, we know this in our personal and professional relationships, you got to keep your word to your friends. Got to be loyal to your friends. People who’ve stood with, you got to stand with them. You got to know who your adversaries are and keep them in check. But what we have seen with Donald Trump is that he has betrayed our friends and embraced dictators around the world.”
Harris focused quickly on the Iran nuclear deal, essentially praising Biden for being one of the architects of the deal and blasting Trump for pulling the U.S. out of it.
“You can look at the Iran nuclear deal, which now [that the U.S. has left the deal] has put us in a position where we are less safe because they are building up what might end up being a significant nuclear arsenal,” Harris argued. “We were in that deal guys. We were in the Iran nuclear deal with friends, with allies around the country. And because of Donald Trump’s unilateral approach to foreign policy, coupled with his isolationism, he pulled us out and has made America less safe. So, Susan, it’s about relationships. And the thing that has always been part of the strength of our nation in addition to our great military has been that we keep our word, but Donald Trump doesn’t understand that because he doesn’t understand what it means to be honest.”
Pence eventually discussed the Iran deal. But he first countered by talking about areas where Trump as commander-in-chief has fulfilled his campaign promises and strengthened American alliances.
“President Trump kept his word when we moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, the capital of the state of Israel,” Pence said. “When Joe Biden was vice president, they promised to do that and they never did.”
“We stood strong with our allies, but we’ve been demanding,” Pence added. “NATO is now contributing more to our common defense than ever before thanks to President Trump’s leadership. We’ve strengthened our alliances across the Asia Pacific, and we’ve stood strong against those who would do us harm.”
Then, Pence drew a contrast with Biden over the administration’s approach towards the Islamic State, commonly known as ISIS.
“When President Trump came into office, ISIS had captured an area of the Middle East, the size of Pennsylvania,” Pence noted. “But President Trump unleashed the American military and our armed forces destroyed the ISIS caliphate and took down their leader, [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi without one American casualty. Al-Baghdadi was responsible for the deaths of thousands, but notably America’s hearts today are with the family of Kayla Mueller. Her parents, which are here with us tonight in Salt Lake City. Today, two of the ISIS killers responsible for Kayla Mueller’s murder were brought to justice in the United States.”
“Jihadi John was killed on the battlefield along with the other beetle,” Pence added. “The reality is that when Joe Biden was vice president, we had an opportunity to save Kayla Mueller. Breaks my heart to reflect on it, but the military came into the oval office, presented a plan, they said they knew where Kayla was. Baghdadi had held her for 18 months, abused or mercilessly before they killed her, but when Joe Biden was vice president they hesitated for a month, and when armed forces finally went in, it was clear she’d been moved two days earlier. And her family says with a heart that broke the heart of every American, that if President Donald Trump had been president, they believe Kayla would be alive today.”
“So,” Pence added, “if we destroy the ISIS caliphate and you talk about re-entering the Iran nuclear deal. I mean the last administration transferred $1.8 billion to the leading state sponsor of terrorism. President Donald Trump got us out of the deal. And when Qassem Soleimani [the former head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps] was traveling to Baghdad to do harm to Americans, President Donald Trump took him out. And America is safer, our allies are safer.”
The moderator then asked Pence about abortion policy, but the vice president returned instead to discussing the Middle East.
“Well, thank you for the question, but I’ll use a little bit of my time to respond to that very important issue before,” he said. “The American people deserve to know Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general was responsible for the death of hundreds of American service members. When the opportunity came, we saw him headed to Baghdad to kill more Americans. President Trump didn’t hesitate and Qassem Soleimani is gone. But you deserve to know the Joe Biden and Kamala Harris actually criticized the decision to take out Qassem Soleimani. It’s really inexplicably, but with regard to Joe Biden, it’s explainable because history records that Joe Biden actually opposed the raid against Osama bin Laden. It’s absolutely essential that we have a commander in chief who will not hesitate to act to protect American lives and to protect American service members, and that’s what you have in President Donald Trump.”
Sen. Harris countered by speaking directly to the parents of Kayla Mueller, then going back on the attack.
“First of all, to the Mueller family, I know about your daughter’s case, and I’m so sorry,” Harris began. “I’m so sorry. What happened to her is awful and it should have never happened, and I know Joe feels the same way, and I know that President Obama feels the same way, but you mentioned Soleimani. Let’s start there.”
“So, after the strike on Soleimani, there was a counter strike on our troops in Iraq, and they suffered serious brain injuries, and do you know what Donald Trump dismissed them as?” Harris asked. “Headaches.”
“And this is about a pattern of Donald Trump’s where he has referred to our men who are serving in our military as suckers and losers,” the senator continued. “Donald Trump, who went to Arlington cemetery and stood above the graves of our fallen heroes and said, ‘What’s in it for them?’ Because of course, he only thinks about what’s in it for him. Let’s take what he said about John McCain, a great American hero, and Donald Trump says, ‘He doesn’t deserve to be called a hero because it was a prisoner of war.’”
Pence shot back immediately, despite the moderator repeatedly telling him that it was not his turn to speak.
“Slanders against President Donald Trump regarding men and women of our armed forces are absurd,” Pence said. “My son is in captain in the United States Marine Corps. My son-in-law is deployed in the United States Navy. I can assure all of you with sons and daughters serving in our military, President Donald Trump not only respects, but reveres all of those who serve in our armed forces and any suggestion, otherwise is ridiculous.”
Several Israeli newspapers covered the Middle East portions of the debate.
- Pence, Harris, clash over Iran nuclear agreement during debate (Jerusalem Post)
Joel C. Rosenberg is the editor-in-chief of ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and the President and CEO of Near East Media. A New York Times best-selling author, Middle East analyst, and Evangelical leader, he lives in Jerusalem with his wife and sons.