LISTEN: Trump Foreign Policy Adviser Hopes To Talk Him Out Of Torture

Mar 23, 2016
Originally published on March 23, 2016 4:42 pm

Presidential candidate Donald Trump, after some delay, has named a few of his foreign policy advisers. One says he hopes that if Trump is elected, cooler heads will persuade him not to carry through on some of his promises.

Walid Phares is a writer, Fox News commentator and onetime national security adviser to 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Although scores of GOP foreign policy specialists wrote an open letter denouncing various Trump views as "unmoored in principle," "a recipe for economic disaster," "inexusable," or reflecting "the sentiment of a racketeer," Phares decided he could help the candidate.

"It is hard to sign on," he told Morning Edition, "because it's a very politically charged ambiance ... but I accepted the task because I think there needs to be a major change in our policy" toward the Middle East. Phares said Trump asked him "to provide education."

The conversation revealed that Phares opposes some of Trump's most attention-getting proposals and wants to persuade the candidate not to pursue them.

Trump has repeatedly called for the United States to "torture" terrorism suspects. His most recent call came after Tuesday's attacks in Brussels. Trump said that a terrorism suspect currently in custody, and cooperating with authorities, would have talked "faster" if he had been tortured.

Phares defended Trump's repeated statements on torture as not an actual policy but as "a reaction to a very complex and difficult and challenging situation." Trump is calling for torture "because we are in a political season," he said, but in the White House "he's going to be tasking experts to answer that question, and I'm not sure that the experts are going to recommend any form of torture."

Speaking to NPR, Phares also seemed to draw a distinction between "torture" and "enhanced interrogation" techniques such as waterboarding. Defenders of such techniques commonly do not accept that they meet the definition of "torture." Torture would violate current law and has been called ineffective or unreliable by many specialists in interrogation. The Trump adviser appeared to favor only "enhanced" techniques that in his view fall short of torture.

Trump has drawn no such distinctions. On CNN Tuesday, he referred to waterboarding as "your minimal form of torture" and told NBC's Today "you could expand the laws more than waterboarding to get the information from these people." He has said that he would favor techniques "a hell of a lot worse" than waterboarding. He has said the United States must keep up with ISIS, which is "chopping off heads." He has repeatedly used the word "torture" while advocating it.

Phares echoes a number of Trump supporters wrestling with the oft-repeated controversial promises that have become the central themes of Trump's campaign. These supporters express hope that if Trump is elected, it will turn out that the blunt-talking businessman does not mean what he says.

"He will count on advisers," Phares predicts.

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has given names of some foreign policy advisers. One is in our studio this morning. Walid Phares is a foreign policy commentator who appears on Fox News and is author of a book called "Future Jihad," among many other things.

Welcome to the program.

WALID PHARES: Thank you very much for having me.

INSKEEP: A lot of foreign policy experts, including a lot of Republicans, have been repelled by Donald Trump. Was it hard for you to sign on?

PHARES: It is hard of course because it's a very politically-charged ambience - I do focus on the Middle East, focus on national security - but I accepted the task because I think there needs to be a major change in our policy, general policy towards the region.

INSKEEP: Well, do you see Donald Trump as someone who has it right or someone that you need to try to educate to get a little more right on the issues?

PHARES: Well, he wanted me to provide education not just to himself but to the other adviser. I mean, he has a different approach. He has a private-sector approach. So he will count on advisers.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about some of the specific things Mr. Trump has said. He responded to yesterday's Brussels attacks in part by calling for the United States to get back into the torture business. Let's listen to something that he said.


DONALD TRUMP: What I would do is, I would - look, I think we have to change our law on, you know the waterboarding thing where they could chop off heads and we can't waterboard. But it's your minimal form of torture. We can't waterboard them. They can chop off heads.

INSKEEP: Now, he's said this a lot, and he adds in this specific situation he believes torture would speed the interrogation of a suspect was captured the other day, but, this does raise a basic question. Do you agree that this is the fundamental problem, that the United States is disadvantaged because it's behind ISIS in the torture department?

PHARES: This is a reaction to a very complex and difficult and challenging situation. I think Mr. Trump, because we are in a political season, he's making those statements. But when he will come to the White House or form the administration then he's going to be tasking experts to answer that question, and I'm not sure that the experts are going to recommend any form of torture.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. Are you saying you would not favor torturing people in this situation?

PHARES: I - no, my position is clear in my books, and I am against torture, but I am with an enhanced form of interrogation that could, by comparing the information which we get from the detainee with other information, get to the result that we want.

INSKEEP: Can a candidate for president of the United States say again and again and again I'm going to torture people, it is vital to do that, and then get into office and then just not?

PHARES: He - I don't think that in his semantics he said we need to torture. He said we need have to have an enhanced or a different or an alternative. I know it's gray, but he did not provide a clear-cut position that he is going to be torturing.

INSKEEP: He says your minimal form of torture in the quote we just heard, he has said we're going to do waterboarding and a hell of a lot worse. He's used the word torture quite a lot, actually.

PHARES: Yeah, waterboarding, yes, he made that statement. But when it comes to torture, I think what he meant - that there need to be other forms of interrogation that would get the information just in case that there is a major threat by the terrorists.

INSKEEP: I want to ask about something else that he says he wants to do specifically with ISIS. He has made remarks about troops in Syria. He's clarified, he says, I don't want U.S. troops in Syria - don't want U.S. troops in there. He then goes on to say - this is a quote from the other day - "I'd get people from that part of the world to put up the troops, and I'd certainly give them air power and air support and some military support." Isn't that very similar to what President Obama is already doing in Syria?

PHARES: No, that's a very clear difference because President Obama has rejected the idea at this point in time to have Arab troops. What Mr. Trump is talking about is to talk with the U.A.E., with Kuwait, with Jordan, with Saudis and probably also with the Egyptians to form a corps that would interfere inside Syria against ISIS because ISIS is deployed in Sunni areas. He does not favor sectarian fights in that area.

INSKEEP: So you want Saudi troops in Syria? Is that what you're saying here?

PHARES: A multinational Arab force - that's different from Saudi troops - that would be backed by the United States, by the Europeans, and not blocked by the United Nations.

INSKEEP: And what leverage does the United States have to get foreign troops into that country where the United States is refusing to send its own troops?

PHARES: Well, the U.S. is not going to send troops, and under a Trump administration, there would be a support in air support, but not sending full-fledged occupation forces. The Arab force will go in, will destroy ISIS, and on its way out it will form brigades from the Sunni Arab population of Syria and if possible of Iraq, and then there will be negotiations for a reconciliation in both countries.

INSKEEP: Would a President Trump be able to get majority-Muslim countries to send troops to fight and die in a U.S. war at the same time that he is banning Muslims from entering the United States?

PHARES: He made that statement, and he immediately said it's interim, this has to do with our homeland security. There will be taskforces to work on giving Mr. Trump what he wants in terms of, can we vet? Once he had the vetting problem resolved, I think that statement will diffuse. I mean, there is no ban on Muslims on religious grounds. In the region, to the opposite, he will be reaching out to the Saudis, to the U.A.E. and Egyptians and to many Muslim states.

INSKEEP: Dr. Phares, thanks for coming by, really appreciate it.

PHARES: Thank you so much.

INSKEEP: Walid Phares is author of "Future Jihad" and is now a foreign policy adviser to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.