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S.E. Cupp: For those who believe neither Trump nor Clinton have the answers, Evan McMullin could just be the only choice

People are sick of what they've been offered in this election, McMullin tells Cupp

Editor’s Note: S.E. Cupp is the author of “Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media’s Attack on Christianity,” co-author of “Why You’re Wrong About the Right” and a columnist at the New York Daily News. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

CNN —  

In a shocking new poll of Utah voters, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are now tied at 26%, while independent candidate Evan McMullin, a Utah native, has surged to a statistical tie, with 22%.

I’ve written about McMullin’s strategy before, and how he could play an unlikely spoiler to Trump and Clinton. But when he reached out to me last week, it wasn’t to discuss his chances or his ground game. It was to talk about Syria.

S.E. Cupp
S.E. Cupp

After noticing one of my so-called tweet-storms on the plight of the Syrian children, he thought we could have an important conversation on a topic that has been, over the course of this election, politicized, overshadowed or ignored altogether. For those of us who think this a crucial national security and humanitarian crisis, and who believe neither Trump nor Clinton have the right answers, McMullin could just be the only choice on November 8.

Here is our conversation:

Cupp: What in your background has informed your positions on Syria and other foreign policy issues?

McMullin: On my first day in Damascus, I was in the souk [marketplace], using broken Arabic to talk to a spice vendor there. We had a nice, simple conversation until I asked him his views on the government, and his thoughts on Bashar al-Assad. He appeared nervous and I thought that he just didn’t understand my broken Arabic. So I asked again and he actually fled to the back of his shop.

I saw a fear in his eyes of the government that I had not ever seen anywhere before. But as I traveled around Syria, to different corners of the country, I saw that fear in everyone’s eyes. It had a deep impact on me, as an American, believing in liberty, freedom and equality. It was completely unacceptable that humans would live in this way.

I would later go on to serve at the Central Intelligence Agency, where I was exposed even further to authoritarian and dictatorial regimes, and I saw the harm they caused to people, economies and entire countries.

I’ve developed, I think, a special opposition in my heart to tyranny.

In Syria, I see Assad willing to spill the blood of hundreds of thousands of people, all to protect his own grip on power in Syria. I simply cannot remain silent without taking action on my own.

I’ve tried to be a vocal advocate for international action that would stop Assad’s slaughter of innocent Syrians, and eventually set the stage for a negotiated departure from the country.

Cupp: You’ll often hear that there are no good solutions in Syria. Is that true?

McMullin: Well, there are no easy options. But they’ve gotten harder the longer we’ve taken the path of inaction. We were worried the country would descend into chaos if we took action. But inaction has led to precisely that.

We’re not perfect. I believe Iraq was a mistake. I think we need to be very careful in how we engage overseas. But the truth is that a smarter foreign policy, a foreign policy I advocate for, is one that engages, but more smartly. We don’t let problems become crises. We strengthen our alliances.

We didn’t do that on Syria. Assad was testing us and testing the world. The signal he got from us what that he could carry out chemical weapons attacks against the Syrian people. We should have enforced the red line. That would have sent a strong message to Assad that those atrocities wouldn’t be tolerated. We should have done more to support the moderate Syrian opposition, and we still need to do that. They haven’t received sufficient support or training, and we know how to do that very well.

The Turks, the Jordanians, the Kurds – yes, they all come with their own quirks, but we ought to support their efforts too. There needs to be a no-fly zone to stop the aerial bombardment of Syrian population centers. We’ve just got to do it. There are ways to do it cheap. It needs to be done.

People want to separate humanitarian disasters from national security disasters. But often times they are both. Syria is a perfect example of that. A brutal dictatorship like Assad’s creates a space for terrorism. Massive refugee flows have created political tensions in Europe and here in the US, opening up opportunities for white nationalist movements to advance here. That’s a national security disaster. I believe Donald Trump’s candidacy is connected to that.

Cupp: Let’s go back. It’s 2011, demonstrators in Daraa are killed by security forces. In just a couple months the Assad regime is killing civilians. What should we have done?

McMullin: Immediately condemn it. That costs us very little if not nothing. We must always condemn atrocities, always, always, always. But as they develop, we have to send stronger messages. There’s sanctions; if necessary we can use military force. There’s an escalation plan.

But we’ve got the largest soap box in the world and if the American president stands on it and says we will not accept a massive atrocity, we’re warning you Assad, do not pursue this avenue any further.

The problem is we tend not to say those things and we’ve squandered our credibility.

I just want to share a quick story. When I was a senior adviser on national security issues to the House, I had a meeting one day with the most senior person dedicated to Syria at the State Department. This was at a time when there had been chemical weapons attacks. We’d just discovered the use of chlorine bombs. I said to the diplomat, “Why isn’t the administration more forcefully condemning these atrocities? The President isn’t out there, the secretary of state isn’t out there. Why is that?”

And their answer was, “We’re afraid the media will then ask us what we’re going to do about it.”

And I thought that was the saddest thing.

Cupp: Trump said in the last debate that Iran, Russia and Assad are killing ISIS, essentially repeating Syrian and Russian propaganda. We know this isn’t true – is he uninformed or in bed with our enemies?

McMullin: He is absolutely aligning himself with our enemies. He is an authoritarian. He has no respect for any check on his power. He has not experienced those checks in his own life. Or when he does experience it, he reacts violently to it.

He would leverage our executive authority to deprive us of our own civil rights. He is absolutely one of them.

Cupp: What about Trump’s plan to steal Iraqi oil? Why wouldn’t that work to starve ISIS?

McMullin: It’s hard to know where to start. First, it’s a silly idea. It’s a violation of the sovereignty of Iraq. We’ve had this international system since World War I and World War II based on the idea of sovereignty, that borders cannot be changed by force, resources cannot be taken by force. It’s the basic framework for the international system since the two great wars. Some people like Trump would say, what’s that gotten us? Well, it’s a period of time since the two great wars during which there haven’t been further [great] wars. It’s facilitated the spread of democracy around the world. At the time of World War I there were about 14 democracies, now there are about 100. It’s led to the lifting out of poverty of 900 million people.

What Trump proposes is a degradation of that order. There are still conflicts around the world, but the absence of great wars – Trump proposes to dismantle that. And that is exactly what Vladimir Putin wants, this would advance the interests of Putin and other expansionist authoritarians around the world.

Putin also wants to see the idea of sovereignty challenged. He foments racial and ethnic tensions to nativists and nationalists, and attaches leaders to these movements, and then empowers those leaders. That turns countries in on themselves. They focus less on the world around them, and in the process the values of liberal democracies are eroded. Then we lose the moral high ground to criticize Russia for its actions. That moral high ground generates tremendous goodwill around the world for us, and it’s a huge source of power. Countries want to work with us, do business with us, work on issues of national security, because of the good will that comes with those ideals.

Vladimir Putin would like us to abandon those ideas because Putin, ISIS, they don’t want us to have that moral high ground. Then they have a freer hand to advance their evil objectives.

Cupp: I do want to also ask you about the election. Can you win? If not, what’s the plan exactly?

McMullin: We’ve been very open and transparent about what we’re trying to do. It would be great if we could win a majority of electoral college votes. We understand that barring some extraordinary situation, that’s unlikely. So the next step would be to deny Trump and Hillary Clinton a majority. We depend on some variables that aren’t in our control there, and that is how close the race between them is.

If it happens to be very close, if we could win a state or two, we could potentially block both of them from the majority and the election then goes to the House of Representatives. We believe the election would reset, and I would have an opportunity to make my case to the American people.

But we’re also doing something else. We’re standing for what is right and decent and true, when we believe no one else was. Cynical people in Washington dismiss that as being an effort without merit or value. But I couldn’t disagree more. The abandonment of conservative ideals – universal ideals, like the idea we are all created equally and the cause of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – those have been abandoned in this election. So we felt like we needed to step up.

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In the process, we are building a new generation of leadership, a new conservative movement. And it’s been incredible, the amount of traction we’ve gotten on the grassroots level. Just since the tape [of Trump discussing grabbing women], engagement online has increased 10 times.

People are sick of what they’ve been offered. They’ve been woken up by this terrible tape of Donald Trump, in which he talks about sexually assaulting women, they are waking up to what’s wrong with him, and they’re looking for other options. And many are finding a home with us.