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The final debate showed that neither Trump nor Clinton know how to talk about Iraq

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump (L) speaks as Democratic presidential nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks on during the third U.S. presidential debate at the Thomas & Mack Center on October 19, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump (L) speaks as Democratic presidential nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks on during the third U.S. presidential debate at the Thomas & Mack Center on October 19, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both talk tough about stepping up the fight against ISIS and finding a way to reduce Syria's carnage. The problem is that neither one has a clear explanation of how they'd do it.

During the final presidential debate Wednesday night, Clinton struggled to square her repeated promises not to send ground troops back into Iraq with the cold reality that the Obama administration already has nearly 5,000 US forces on the ground there. Trump, for his part, refused to give a clear answer about whether his promise to "bomb the hell out of ISIS" meant that he would be willing to send even larger numbers of American troops into the fight.

The muddled messages were an echo of the vice presidential debate from earlier this month where a flurry of insults, interruptions, and outright lies helped obscure a pair of unintentionally revealing exchanges.

When Trump running mate Mike Pence blamed Clinton for the rise of ISIS, because she'd "failed to renegotiate a forces agreement that would have allowed some American combat troops to remain in Iraq," Clinton's running mate, Tim Kaine, shot back: "Well, if you want to put more American troops in Iraq, you can propose that."

Pence didn't.

Later, the Republican took implicit aim at Kaine's boasts that Clinton had helped to wind down the massively unpopular Iraq War. "The president just ordered more troops on the ground," Pence said. "We are back at war in Iraq." This time it was Kaine who had no response.

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The failure to articulate a clear message about Iraq and Syria isn't just a political problem for Clinton and Trump as they prepare for Sunday night's debate. It's also a substantive challenge, and one with significant real-world consequences. Come January, one of them will be commander in chief. That means they won't just have to figure out how to talk about the wars there. They'll have to decide what to do about them.

Trump's Iraq and Syria strategies have a great big hole in the center

In the vice presidential debate, Pence called for establishing "safe zones" in Syria where refugees fleeing the fighting in places like Aleppo could find shelter. Trump also supports the idea, though in characteristic fashion he believes Persian Gulf allies should pay for it.

That sounds innocuous enough on the surface. The problem comes when you actually look at what establishing and protecting a safe zone in Syria would require. You'd need American aircraft to patrol the skies — which could easily lead to situations where the US had to down Syrian (and potentially even Russian) warplanes and helicopters before they could strike civilians on the ground — and you'd need what could be significant numbers of US ground troops to help set up, maintain, and guard the safe zone itself.

That's not armchair analysis. In July 2013, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent a letter to Capitol Hill Michigan warning that creating a no-fly zone would cost $500 million to set up and at least $1 billion a month to operate, and could result in US planes being downed. He said that establishing — and then protecting — humanitarian corridors designed to give Syrian civilians safe shelter from Assad's forces would require thousands of American ground troops.

So far, it's unclear whether Trump and Pence would actually be willing to send the US troops needed to make this happen. GOP hawks like John McCain and Lindsey Graham have called for the deployment of up to 20,000 troops, more than triple the amount currently in the two countries, but Trump has repeatedly contradicted himself on the issue. In March, he said he'd be willing to send "20,000 to 30,000" more troops to fight ISIS. In July, he reversed course and said he'd actually have "very few troops on the ground."

"When it comes to both Iraq and Syria, many Republicans talk a tough game but don't actually admit it would require more US forces," said Ilan Goldenberg of the Center for a New American Security, formerly a top Pentagon Middle East policy official. "The most striking example has been Trump and Pence's position on Syria, where they've both called for a safe zone in Syria but don't acknowledge this actually requires American forces."

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior defense and foreign affairs analyst at the Brookings Institution, said that Pence's safe zone proposal seemed to echo earlier comments from Clinton, who has been talking about such a move for months. O'Hanlon said that Pence also "basically supported putting ground troops in position to defend those safe zones" — something the Trump campaign rarely discusses so explicitly.

"I think [Pence] is totally right — and totally out of step with his running mate," O'Hanlon said.

Clinton believes ground troops in Iraq are somehow not really ground troops in Iraq

Clinton's Iraq policy suffers from a similar, though slightly different, problem. Last month, Clinton bluntly said that "we're not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again." That may come as a surprise to the families of the roughly 5,000 US troops already on the ground in Iraq, a number poised to grow by at least 500 in coming weeks.

The former secretary of state is trying to be too cute by half. She's arguing that the thousands of US troops who are on the ground in Iraq to train and advise Iraqi and Kurdish forces aren't technically ground combat troops, even though they're deployed to an active war zone, regularly exchange fire with enemy forces, and have suffered casualties.

"When she talks about how there won't be ground troops in Iraq, she means there won't be significant numbers of American troops there at the pointy end of the spear," said Derek Chollet, a former senior Obama administration official who strongly backs Clinton. "Of course troops serving in Iraq can be in harm's way. But the missions they're doing aren't combat operations."

Still, Chollet acknowledged that the distinction can get lost in the final frantic weeks before the election.

"It's really hard to talk about nuanced policy in the heat of the campaign," he said. "The nuance matters, and it often just gets lost."

That may be true, but it simply serves as a reminder of Clinton's lingering Iraq problem. Clinton can describe them however she wants to, but the cold hard truth is that the US has sent ground troops back into Iraq. And if we've learned anything over the past 13 years of fighting, it's this: Putting Americans into Iraq is a lot easier than pulling them out.

Sunday night's debate will be moderated by CNN's Anderson Cooper and ABC's Martha Raddatz, both of whom have spent extensive amounts of time reporting on Iraq and Syria and making trips to the region. That means Trump and Clinton are each likely to face questions about their strategies for the conflicts there. And it's a reminder that the clock is ticking to the moment one of them will need to actually put their plan in place.