Hillary Clinton gave a disputable description of the location of Mosul, the largest city held by the Islamic State group, during Wednesday’s final major-party presidential debate, but pundits and the press did not pounce.
In contrast to the intense news coverage of Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson’s moment of confusion about Aleppo, Syria, during an MSNBC interview last month, Clinton’s arguable misstatement about the major Iraqi city attracted just a handful of tweets.
“What's really important here is to understand all the interplay. Mosul is a Sunni city. Mosul is on the border of Syria,” the Democratic nominee told a domestic audience of about 70 million during the debate made memorable by bitter barbs and insults.
Mosul is not directly on the border with Syria, which is about 100 miles to the west or 75 miles northwest to the nearest border crossing. Ireland is closer to Wales. Montreal is nearer to New York state and Damascus, Syria’s capital, is closer to Israel – either its de facto or internationally recognized borders.
“The obvious response is there is a very hypocritical double standard here,” Johnson tells U.S. News. “If anyone ought to know geographic locations, it’s Hillary.”
Clinton generally is regarded as a foreign policy expert and a relative hawk. The former first lady was a senator for most of the Iraq War before becoming the nation’s top diplomat as secretary of state.
Mosul was a debate topic because the Iraqi government and Kurdish militia launched a U.S.-supported offensive this week to retake the city held by the jihadi group since June 2014.
"We can take back Mosul and move on into Syria,” Clinton said. At another point in the debate, she said “the goal here is to take back Mosul. .... And then continue to press into Syria to begin to take back and move on Raqqa,” the second-largest city held by the group.
Difficulty describing Mideast geography extends beyond the presidential race. Last month Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, misstated the location of the Strait of Hormuz while justifying an arms sale to Saudi Arabia.
Johnson generally advocates a non-interventionist foreign policy, and he says it's concerning that people who push a harder line struggle with accuracy – which he places in a larger context, including erroneous claims about Iraq's weaponry to justify the 2003 U.S. invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.
“This is just a glaring double standard, and deeper than that is the reason for our foreign policy – it's rooted in a bunch of people who just don’t have a clue … about what [U.S. intervention] is going to cause in the future,” Johnson says.
Johnson's infamous statement "What is Aleppo?" resulted in widespread questions about the former New Mexico GOP governor's qualifications. He later said he mistakenly believed he was being asked about an acronym, and seconds after the well-circulated gaffe did offer an analysis of Syria's civil war.
University of Virginia politics expert Larry Sabato says there's a good reason Clinton's statement did not capture widespread attention. He says Mosul is close enough to the border that the comment isn't particularly embarrassing and that there currently are many larger election-related controversies.
“Should the mistake be corrected by a fact check? Sure. Is this a big goof that warrants a headline? Not in my book,” Sabato says. “Maybe you could justify more coverage since Clinton was secretary of state. I just don't see this as a revealing or significant error.”
Republican candidate Donald Trump is better known for making statements identified by fact-checking organizations as lies, Sabato adds.
He says he believes Johnson’s so-called “Aleppo moment” may have gotten too much press, given his small chance of winning, and that it’s possible that preconceptions about Johnson and Clinton played some role in the relative attention paid to the statements.
“Johnson was a two-term governor, and governors are usually weak on foreign policy,” he says. “As we've all heard endlessly, Clinton has traveled to dozens and dozens of countries. People believe, correctly, that she knows the world pretty well.”
Still, critics of U.S. intervention in the region see things differently.
"The fact that Hillary Clinton incorrectly identified Mosul as being on the border of Syria, despite having led us into war with Iraq and advocating U.S. intervention in Syria as secretary of state, highlights the insanity of our current bipartisan foreign policy," says Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate who often polls fourth behind the major-party candidates and Johnson.
"The political and media establishment have built up Clinton as the best and most experienced candidate on foreign policy, when the reality is that her experience includes a trail of destruction and failed states, from Iraq to Libya and Honduras," she says in an emailed statement. "This is much more troubling than Gary Johnson's 'Aleppo moment,' yet we expect the corporate media will largely ignore it because their owners don't want to discredit the preferred candidate of Wall Street bankers and war profiteers."
Trump did not describe Mosul’s geographic location from the debate stage but claimed the ongoing U.S.-backed offensive was timed to make Clinton “look good" and said he would have preferred a surprise attack. Trump also said he opposed aiding rebels opposed to Syria’s government, unlike Clinton, who called for the establishment of a no-fly zone and safe havens inside Syria to create negotiating leverage.
Though greeted with a yawn, Justin Raimondo, the editorial director of Antiwar.com, says Americans should care about Clinton's description of Mosul.
“It's concerning in the general sense that Hillary Clinton is simply getting a free pass from the media – and also that the media doesn't seem to know where Mosul is, either,” Raimondo says.
“It's more than merely concerning in a more specific sense because Mrs. Clinton's comments were uttered in the context of her strategic plan to take on ISIS,” he adds, using an alternative name for the Islamic State group. “If she really thinks that taking Mosul will somehow provide a gateway to ‘press into Syria,’ then she is in for a big surprise.”