It is hard to admit after suffering through all those two- and three-hour debates in the primary season, but the Commander-in-Chief Forum sponsored by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans was too brief to be very illuminating about the national security views of the major-party candidates. Worse yet, the fast pace seemed to have emptied moderator Matt Lauer’s brain of any goal other than asking hard-hitting questions and moving on, providing the impression that the two candidates’ answers were equivalent expressions of reasonable approaches to U.S. security challenges. A cursory look at what they said shows otherwise.
Hillary Clinton spent most of her time answering hostile questions about her use of emails as secretary of state and her vote to authorize the Iraq War. She really did not need to present a national security philosophy, because she has been doing that regularly ever since her first race for the Senate in 2000. When finally allowed to escape her defensive crouch via a question about her process for deciding when to use military force to defeat ISIS, she gave a classic Democratic Goldilocks answer, eschewing too hot (ground troops) and too cold (disengagement) responses.
Donald Trump, however, is another matter. He has typically offered impulsive answers to sporadic questions about national security policy, and has occasionally — viz., his cluelessness in a primary debate about the strategic triad of air, land, and sea delivery systems for nuclear weapons — looked like someone who should be kept far from the levers of power.
In this forum, he did not sound clueless, which was a small triumph. But two strange aspects of his approach to national security became clear.
First, when challenged by moderator Matt Lauer to reconcile his talk of a “plan” for defeating ISIS with his boast that he would be “unpredictable” to confuse America’s enemies, Trump came down squarely on the side of unpredictability, criticizing Barack Obama for telling the world what he would do. The idea of a president deliberately pursuing an erratic course of action and refusing to articulate policies is certainly new.
Second, when asked about his expressions of admiration of Vladimir Putin, Trump doubled down, calling Putin a better leader than Obama and touting Putin’s domestic poll ratings as a validator of Vlad’s sterling qualities. This was cold comfort to Americans concerned that Trump might emulate his Russian friend in “uniting” his country and Making It Great Again via radical curbs on dissent and diversity.
More generally, Trump is drifting toward a truly Jacksonian national security posture, which can be described as a philosophy of peace through strength — and craziness! He has taken to calling Hillary Clinton “trigger happy” (as he did tonight), even as he calls for much higher defense spending, a larger military, and the elimination of any restraints of use of military force against civilians. The idea seems to be to maintain a credible threat of insane, massively destructive overreaction to any friend or foe who messes with Uncle Sam. This “winning through intimidation” approach helps explain why Putin is a role model for the candidate.
Even though this global, nuclear-armed version of the motto “Don’t tread on me” has been a subcurrent of American popular culture for decades, we have never had a commander-in-chief so irresponsible as to make it the touchstone of actual U.S. policy. Hillary Clinton can be accused of a lot of mistakes and misjudgments over the years, but she has never entertained the idea that America should protect its interests by inspiring sheer terror and emulating despots.