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Uncertain times ahead
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 11 - 10 - 2016

The United States and the world had waited for the second presidential debate between Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump Sunday, to see who among the two candidates could deliver a knock-out four weeks before US presidential elections 8 November.
The first debate, 26 September, was a near win for the Democratic nominee. In between, Donald Trump had seen his poll ratings go down, more Republicans asking him to leave the presidential race, and the establishment media openly undermining his chances of winning the elections next month. The New York Times ran a story on his tax returns, and how he had avoided paying taxes because of reporting hundreds of millions of dollars as losses in his business back in 1995. On the other hand, The Washington Post — and only two days before the second debate — came out with a video dating back 11 years ago in which Donald Trump had made lewd remarks about women and used crass language. It was a bombshell. Leading Republicans withdrew their support for his candidacy, like Senator John McCain, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Not to be outdone by leading establishment newspapers, The Columbus Dispatch, a well-known daily in Ohio, ran an editorial Sunday in which it argued: “Like millions of Americans [we ask] this question more than once: How, in a nation of more than 300 million people, did we end up with two such disliked and distrusted presidential candidates?”
The paper went on to claim that Trump “is unfit to be president of the United States… [and] Hillary Clinton, despite her flaws, is well-equipped for the job.” The Ohio daily said that the “negatives [of Hillary Clinton] pale when measured against the dangers posed by Trump.”
The last time the Columbus Dispatch supported a Democrat to the White House dates back one hundred years to when it endorsed former president Woodrow Wilson. For a century it stood behind Republican presidential candidates. As for The New York Daily News, its cover story in its Sunday edition, 9 October, the day of the second debate, ran: “Delete Your Campaign.”
Accordingly, the second presidential debate was nothing but a high-stakes game of risk for Donald Trump. Either it could provide sustained momentum within the Republican Party to pressure him to quit the presidential race, or it could breathe new life in his campaign. His performance made it possible that he could continue campaigning for the White House provided he could be as disciplined, as he proved to be during the second debate in Saint Louis yesterday evening.
The two moderators of the second presidential debate were Martha Raddatz of ABC News and Anderson Cooper of CNN. You would not consider them very fair to the Republican nominee. He made a point, every now and then, to assert that they are biased against him, to the extent that he said the debate was “three against one.”
The debate dealt with the personal lives of the two candidates — unprecedented in the history of US presidential elections, and you could argue that it was the lowest point in the 2016 presidential campaign so far. None of the two candidates sent a signal from the outset that he or she wanted to stay away from such high personal negativity. A Congressional publication wrote after the debate: “an ugly campaign gets uglier.”
The topics raised by the audience, in the auditorium and on social media, ranged from taxes, to the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, the slow rate of economic growth of the American economy during the eight years of the Obama administration, the issue of Clinton's private email server, Clinton's links with wealth on Wall Street, and foreign policy.
Hillary Clinton insinuated that Putin's Russia is interfering in the presidential elections in the United States by using hackers, even though she said that she did not have solid information to prove her claim that Moscow is working against her winning. She tried to drive a point home that there are common interests between Trump and Vladimir Putin. The Republican nominee denied having any relations or contacts with Russia. He when it comes to dealing with Russia, at this stage, he remains neutral. However, he left no doubt whatsoever when discussing how he would go about defeating the terrorist organisation called the Islamic State (Daesh). On this he said he would not hesitate to cooperate with Moscow.
The two candidates adopted opposing approaches to the situation in Syria. Of course, the main point related to how to save Aleppo. Hillary Clinton did not offer much that is different from the present policies of the Obama administration. In other words, more destruction and mayhem. She promised not to send boots on the grounds, but would rather provide assistance to the allies and partners of the United States fighting the Bashar Al-Assad regime. She left no doubt that she will not hesitate to confront Russia in Syria, and that the solution in Syria lies in bringing down the Syrian regime. Speaking about her position concerning Syria, she vowed to assist what she termed “rebels”. Donald Trump jumped on the term and said his opponent does not even know who those rebels are. He was not off the mark.
Trump fiercely took the Obama administration to task when speaking about the overall situation in the Levant, particularly in Iraq in light of the expected assault on Mosul to retake it from Daesh. He said that instead of keeping the assault and its timing a secret, American and Iraqi officials keep discussing it publicly, unwisely, and this has given the chance for the leaders of Daesh to flee the city and find refuge in other places. Hillary Clinton retorted by insisting that she would go after Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader of Daesh, the way the United States dealt with Osama Bin Laden and other commanders in Al-Qaeda (ie targeted assassination).
One of the most remarkable proposals of Hillary Clinton in outlining her position on Syria was her proposal to arm the Kurds to enable them to continue fighting Daesh, ignoring the ongoing battles between the Turkish army and Syrian Kurds who are accused by one of the US's allies in the Middle East — Turkey — of being “terrorists”. Trump let it go. Maybe because the two candidates are not fully aware of how complicated and difficult the realities of the Syrian civil war are.
Trump kept hammering Clinton and the Obama administration on the Iranian nuclear deal of last year, and how this deal has turned Iran into an economic power with much political clout in the region by infusing billions of dollars into state coffers in Tehran. Surprisingly, Hillary Clinton did not comment.
Another interesting moment in the debate was the answer that Trump gave to a question of whether he endorses the position taken by Governor Mike Pence, his running mate, a couple of days before when he said he would be willing to go after Russian military targets in Syria. Trump took everyone by surprise when he replied that he disagrees and has not talked to Governor Pence on this matter.
Unsurprisingly, the Palestinian question did not come up, neither by the moderators, nor by the audience and social media users who tweeted or sent questions via Facebook. Neither candidate, in discussing their respective approaches on how to deal with the situation in the Middle East, brought it up. Too bad. For those of us in Egypt and the wider Middle East, it seems that the future does not look very bright from the perspective of future American policies in the region come January with a new occupant at the White House, Republican or Democrat. Uncertain times loom ahead.
Who won the second presidential debate in Saint Louis, Missouri? According to most American experts, the debate did not change the present dynamics of the presidential elections. But it would be safe to say that Donald Trump did not lose. And this, in itself, is a definition of his success in this debate. His performance breathed new life in a faltering campaign. Whether he will be able to go from here to convince the undecided, women, Muslim Americans, Hispanics and college-educated youth in America that he is fit to become the next US president remains to be seen.
As far as Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, is concerned, Trump “clearly has earned the right to be the Republican nominee”.
“He is back on track. I think the odds are he wins despite everything the media has done in a totally one-sided way,” he added.
In an instant poll by CNN/YouGov after the debate was over, 47 per cent of respondents viewed Hillary Clinton as the winner, and 42 per cent said Donald Trump had won the debate.
The third and final debate in the presidential campaign will take place 19 October in Las Vegas. Until then, the presidential campaigns of both candidates could witness surprises — and not too pleasant, for that matter.
The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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