In what one understating observer called “an hour’s worth of gobsmacking political television”, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump proved themselves, once again, to be remarkably unfit to darken the doorsteps of the presidency. Writing for Commentary, Jonathan Tobin observes that both candidates “made statements that were disqualifying.” The plural form, alas, is no exaggeration.
Squaring off separately to discuss military and veterans issues aboard the decommissioned aircraft carrier USS Intrepid at the Intrepid Sea, Air, & Space Museum in Manhattan, Clinton and Trump each took thirty minutes of questions from moderator Matt Lauer and members of the audience. Many commentators have focused on already familiar problems: whether Clinton’s continued inability to discuss coherently—and without fundamental dishonesty—her email scandal or Trump’s unnecessary refusal to own his early support for the Iraq war. Both issues are, of course important, if in different degrees, and should continue to be pursued. Both also unquestionably point to the candidate’s shortcomings regarding character and judgment, qualities which, interestingly enough, both candidates cited as crucial for the job they’re after. But its on each candidates’ response to ISIS that I want to focus.
First up, Clinton took a question from an Army veteran who reflected on a commander-in-chief’s ability to empathize with service members, “to truly understand the implications and consequences of decisions, actions, or inactions.” He then asked, “How will you determine when and where to deploy troops into harm’s way, especially to combat ISIS?”
Clinton responded by insisting that defeating ISIS is her “highest counterterrorism goal.” She affirmed that the goal would be pursued by giving “much more support for the Arabs and Kurds who will fight on the ground.” As for direct American involvement, she insisted “We’ve got to do it with air power.” Moreover she pledged, “They are not going to get ground troops. We are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again. And we’re not putting ground troops into Syria.”
Of course, the secretary is aware, and indicated as much, that the US military already has sent support to our local allies in Iraq and Syria in the form of several thousand special forces, enablers, and surveillance, intelligence, and reconnaissance assets. She certainly knows, too, that its more than a matter of semantics to point out that special forces, enablers, and quite often the other personnel are, indeed, “ground troops” and that they are also often engaging in direct combat and are, moreover, taking casualties. So let’s assume that what she’s really talking about is never again sending a significantly sized invasion force.
Even so, the problems with Clinton’s equivocating remain. The primary concern, as I see it, is that in the face of a question by a veteran about her ability to empathize with those she might send into harm’s way, she shamelessly displays her willingness to obfuscate the reality of the service being done by our warfighters. The vast majority of our military personnel are dedicated to serving with probity and courage. They are willing to deploy into harm’s way and to have their lives spent by their military and civilian leaders. But the vet’s question sought assurance, I suggest, that a President Clinton, while willing to spend her warrior’s lives, would not waste them. Surely, one aspect of not wasting lives is rightly acknowledging the work they’re risking their lives to do.
Secondly, of course, there’s the strategic absurdity of her insistence. Clinton has no idea what the future might bring. To say “never” puts impossible limits on our ability to respond to changing threats and unnecessarily hamstrings military planners. Because she surely knows this, and because she also tends to be far more hawkish than her supporters like to acknowledge, we can only conclude that her pledge is simply dishonest, rendered for her own political gain. So in the face of that question, by a vet, about her ability to empathize with her warfighters she also proves herself willing to lie to them about what she might call them to do.
Trump, of course, scored no better. First there’s his largely incoherently articulated suggestion that we ought to have stolen Iraq’s oil before we left—which he insists would have had the shared benefit of not just making sure we “got something” out of Iraq but of staving off the formation of ISIS, despite there being no causal relationship between left-behind Iraqi oil and the rise of the Islamic State. Then there’s his breezy dismissal of the US generals serving under President Obama as an “embarrassment” to the nation. Then there’s his abhorrent and factually unsound assertions regarding the cause and handling of sexual assault cases within the military community. Throw on top of all of this his continued gushing support for Russian President Putin, and you have a jumbled word-salad of inarticulate nonsense.
Despite all this, I want to consider his response to how he would stop ISIS. When Lauer asked whether Trump would elaborate on his continued assertions that he “has a secret plan” to defeat ISIS, Trump responded:
I have a plan. But I want to be—I don’t want to—look. I have a very substantial chance of winning. Make America great again. We’re going to make America great again. I have a substantial chance of winning. If I win, I don’t want to broadcast to the enemy exactly what my plan is.
Lauer pressed him for more details but Trump blocked and bridged and dodged and blustered. The problem I want to touch on here has to do Trump’s apparent refusal to take the American voter seriously. Terrorism is on the minds of voters perhaps like never before. Europe, Turkey, and the Middle East have staggered under repeated assaults. Americans know the stakes are high in November. No one wants Trump to broadcast Obama-style his detailed intentions to the enemy. But we would like some, even modest, reassurance that Trump has thought the issue through. We are looking for a candidate who grasps what’s at stake and is ready to meet the challenge. If Trump would condescend to give us an outline of his approach to how he would address ISIS, a description of his guiding assumptions, his philosophical approach, some sense of benchmarks, he would go some distance in assuring us that he is not as ill-prepared to take office as he is to have a debate or answer moderated questions.
Strikingly, in his opening remarks, Lauer noted that from the deck of the Intrepid he could “see the sight of the world trade center” where fifteen years ago this Sunday the worst terror attack on US soil changed the country and the world forever. After a decade-and-a-half of continued war and turmoil and terroristic threats and the Clinton-Trump contest is particularly unsettling. Couple it with the possibility that the closing months of the Obama tragedy might see increased belligerence from opportunistic rivals such as Russia, China, or Iran—each eager to take what can be taken before Obama’s successor possibly closes the door on the easy grabs—and the anxiety deepens.
Despair is not a Christian option. But realism is. And there was precious little from either candidate to assure Americans that the present reality is not despairing.
Marc LiVecche is managing editor of Providence
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons (the caricature of Hillary Clinton was adapted from a photo in the public domain from the East Asia and Pacific Media’s Flickr photostream. The body was adapted from a photo in the public domain from the U.S. Department of State’s Flickr photostream. That of Donald Trump was adapted from Creative Commons licensed images from Max Goldberg’s flickr photostream.)