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The NBC Commander-in-Chief Forum: Advantage Trump

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By:Srdja Trifkovic | September 09, 2016

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On Wednesday night Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump spoke at the same prime-time television event for the first time. The “forum” was not a debate; the candidates appeared back-to-back, answering Matt Lauer’s questions about their qualities and qualifications to be commander-in-chief. He let Clinton—who appeared first—speak without disruption, but repeatedly interrupted Trump. On the other hand, he devoted a good third of Clinton’s segment to the thorny issue of her emails and personal server. In my ad hoc summary of noteworthy moments I have tried to keep my own views (well known to our readers) separate from the analysis.

According to Hillary Clinton, the most important characteristic that a commander-in-chief can possess is steadiness: “An absolute rock steadiness, and mixed with strength to be able to make the hard decisions . . . And when you’re sitting in the Situation Room, as I have on numerous occasions . . . what you want in a president, a commander-in-chief, is someone who listens, who evaluates what is being told . . . who is able to sort out the very difficult options being presented.”

Comment: Clinton unsurprisingly omitted honesty and trustworthiness—or the perception thereof (“honest Abe”)—which a commander-in-chief needs in order to gain the trust and personal commitment of those he commands. This is the key to effective leadership, which is the essence of command. For all his geopolitical acumen and intelligence, in this respect Richard Nixon was fatally flawed. The issue of personal character and integrity—which plagued her husband’s second term—has been, and remains, a major liability for Mrs. Clinton.

In terms of decision-making effectiveness, it is critical that a president “who listens, who evaluates what is being told . . . who is able to sort out the very difficult options being presented” has a team of advisors who are able and willing to present analysis and policy options which are at variance with the commander-in-chief’s temperament and perceived or stated preferences. Harry Truman was not an instinctive cold warrior, but he was receptive to the ideas of Dean Acheson and George Kennan—independent lucid thinkers—in devising the containment strategy in 1947 which eventually bore his name. JFK did well during the Cuban missile crisis because his EXCOMM was composed of individuals unencumbered by the need to pander to his likely preferences. In short, an effective president needs to possess good negotiating skills, to be flexible, to prioritize objectives (and be willing to forgo one to achieve another), and to be able to change his mind when presented with cogent argument.

Clinton’s record at the Department of State points in the opposite direction on all counts, as exemplified by her decision to advocate intervention in Libya in general, and to conduct the high-risk Benghazi operation in particular. When making key decisions she was unwilling to tolerate dissent and delegate authority, which are essential presidential qualities (FDR and Reagan were good at both). At the same time, when things went wrong she was loath to accept responsibility for failure, mendaciously presented a false narrative on Benghazi (she initially claimed the attack on the compound was triggered off by “demonstrations” over a fictitious video), and eventually passed the buck to her subordinates.

Hillary Clinton’s likely national security team (Samantha Power, Michele Flournoy, Victoria Nuland, Jake Sullivan, Chuck Schumer et al) will consist of neoliberal interventionists who subscribe to all key tenets of the post-Cold War duopoly consensus based on deterritorialized global hegemony. There will be no dissenters, no pragmatic realists. In the Forum, Clinton presented herself as a model of “absolute rock steadiness” on foreign affairs. This is alarming: it is not to be doubted that she will be “steady” in continuing, or even intensifying, a global strategy which is inherently destabilizing for the world, and unrelated to the American interest.

When asked by Lauer whether her use of personal e-mail and server while secretary of state was disqualifying for a would-be commander-in-chief, Clinton admitted that “it was a mistake to have a personal account,” but asserted that she has “a lot of experience dealing with classified material, starting when I was on the Senate Armed Services Committee going into the four years as secretary of state. Classified material has a header which says ‘top secret,’ ‘secret,’ ‘confidential.’”

Comment: The significant omission, not noted by Lauer, is that Hillary Clinton never used her designated Department of State e-address, which would have made her emails available to public scrutiny under the Freedom of Information Act. As for her “lot of experience dealing with classified material,” during her FBI interview she admitted that she did not understand that emails marked “C” meant that they were classified. She had previously asserted that classified emails were on her server because they were “retroactively classified,” but the FBI report disclosed that the Clinton server had 81 email chains (at least 110 individual emails) which were designated “classified” at the time they were sent or received by her between 2009 and 2013, 68 of which remain classified today. According to FBI Director James Comey—as Lauer reminded the audience—“there is evidence to support a conclusion that any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton’s position, or in the position of those government employees with whom she was corresponding about these matters, should have known that an unclassified system was no place for that conversation.”

Regarding her vote in favor of the war in Iraq, Clinton said “that it is imperative that we learn from the mistakes, like after-action reports are supposed to do, and so we must learn what led us down that path so that it never happens again. I think I’m in the best possible position to be able to understand that and prevent it.”

Comment: Clinton did not explain what did she “learn from the mistakes.” Her advocacy of the Libyan intervention nine years after her Iraq war vote, and her continuing advocacy of greater American “engagement” in Syria (“Bashar must go!”) are indicative of her inability to learn. It is indeed “imperative that we learn from the mistakes,” hers included. 

Asked by a self-designated progressive whether her “hawkish foreign policy will continue” and what is her plan “to end wasteful war campaigns in which our peers, servicewomen and men, continue to be killed and wounded,” Hillary Clinton replied that she viewed “force as a last resort, not a first choice”: “Gaddafi was threatening to massacre his population. I put together a coalition that included NATO, included the Arab League, and we were able to save lives. We did not lose a single American in that action. And I think taking that action was the right decision. Not taking it, and permitting there to be an ongoing civil war in Libya, would have been as dangerous and threatening as what we are now seeing in Syria.”

Comment: Clinton’s implication that the civil war in Libya is over is incorrect. The reality on the ground (and a myriad of “after-action reports”) uniformly confirm that U.S. intervention created outcomes far worse than the situation preceding it: the country has descended into Hobbesian mayhem. It is today a paradigmatic “failed state” ruled by competing Islamic militias, a safe haven for thousands of battle-hardened jihadists, and the launching pad for the ongoing migrant invasion of Europe. “What we are now seeing in Syria” is a mirror-image of what Clinton still insists was a success in Libya, not its counterpoint. This is the most alarming point of her Wednesday presentation: (1) treating a concocted threat of “massacre” as casus belli, in line with the nebulous doctrine of R2P (“responsibility to protect”); (2) intervening with no strategic objective beyond regime change, no end-game calculus, and no regard for the geopolitical interests of the United States; and (3) claiming that the resulting debacle was in fact a success (including the boast that “no American lives were lost”). Her implied intention to repeat the exercise in Syria shows that Hillary Clinton learns nothing and forgets nothing.

When asked by Lauer about the nuclear deal with Iran, and her stated expectation that the Iranians would cheat, Clinton replied that the agreement “put a lid on their nuclear weapons program and imposed intrusive inspections . . . [W]e are going to enforce it to the letter . . . I think we have enough insight into what they're doing to be able to say we have to distrust but verify.”

Comment: On this issue at least Clinton is on solid ground. In July 2015 Iran accepted a comprehensive set of international, legally mandated, and (by implication) militarily enforceable safeguards. The agreement put invasive monitoring and verification measures in place that will make it extremely hard to cheat. Alarmist claims to the contrary notwithstanding, the Vienna agreement will likely ensure that the subject of nuclear-armed Iran is closed for at least a decade.

Asked about her counter-ISIS strategy, Clinton replied that defeating it was her highest counterterrorism goal: “And we’ve got to do it with air power. We’ve got to do it with much more support for the Arabs and the Kurds who will fight on the ground against ISIS. We have to squeeze them by continuing to support the Iraqi military.”

Comment: Air power is provenly ineffective without boots on the ground. The Kurds in northern Syria have been determined and successful fighting ISIS until they were thrown under the bus by the U.S. in the wake of Turkey’s intervention at the end of August. The real target of Erdogan’s engagement—the Kurds—had been clear all along, but the Obama administration nevertheless pretended otherwise. It is unclear how Clinton, the self-avowed heir to Obama’s legacy, intends to square the Kurdish-Turkish circle and regain Kurds’ confidence. Let it be added that the only “Arabs” effectively fighting ISIS are the soldiers of the Syrian government army, which Hillary Clinton’s close associate Michele Flournoy wants to “degrade” by U.S. military action (see my Jihad’s Beltway Allies of June 28).

Towards the end Lauer asked if the Democratic candidate could “guarantee people that after four years of a Clinton presidency, they will be safer on the streets of San Bernardino or Boston than they are today.” Clinton replied that there would be “an intelligence surge,” with a lot more cooperation out of Europe and the Middle East: “We have to do a better job of not only collecting and analyzing the intelligence we do have, but distributing it much more quickly down the ladder to state and local law enforcement . . . [W]e have to finally pass a law prohibiting people on the terrorist watch list from being able to buy a gun in the United States of America . . . Going after American Muslims . . . making it more difficult for us to have a coalition with Muslim majority nations . . . that is not going to help us to succeed in defeating ISIS and protecting our American homeland.”

Comment: The answer is incongruous. (1) The problem is not that of operational effectiveness of the intelligence agencies—it is directly correlated to the size of the Muslim diaspora, which Clinton refuses to consider as a problem, and in its prevailing core beliefs and values rooted in the nature of Islamic mindset, which she is even more adamant not to assess; (2) Cooperation with “Europe” will not do much good at the time when intelligence and security agencies in France, Belgium, Germany, etc. are hardly able to keep track of domestic threats, as recent attacks in Brussels, Nice, Munich etc. indicate; (3) Cooperation with “the Middle East” should exclude Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the Gulf monarchies, which have actively promoted Islamic radicalism, and facilitated jihadist terrorism, for decades; (4) The terrorists will obtain weapons regardless of the law, as attacks in a long-disarmed Europe prove beyond reasonable doubt; and (5) “going after American Muslims” should not be equated with pragmatic profiling, systematic supervision, and immigration restrictions—all of which she opposes.

Lauer’s first question to Trump concerned his “temperament”—“when you’re commander-in-chief, you can spark a conflict, you can destabilize a region, you can put American lives at risk, can we afford to take that risk with you?”—to which the Republican candidate replied that his visit to Mexico proved he was up to the task: “I had great relationships, everything else. I let them know where the United States stands.”

Comment: Trump had a lucky break that his trip happened in the first place. He performed well and appeared statesmanlike, thanks largely to his hosts’ apparent ineptitude. This in itself is no proof that he is temperamentally suited to be commander-in-chief. He should have replied that the “America First” principle promises to balance ends and means, objectives and capabilities, in his grand-strategic design, regardless of his personal communication style.

It was somewhat disconcerting for Trump to state that “under the leadership of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the generals have been reduced to rubble,” even though his meaning was clear when he made references to the estimated number of enemy fighters, and to the likely response of Patton and MacArthur. “I have great faith in certain of the commanders,” he added, “but I have no faith in Hillary Clinton or the leadership.”

Comment: Trump was lucky that Lauer did not know enough history to point out that both U.S. generals were fighting conventional armies (Patton vs. the Wehrmacht in North Africa, Italy and Western Europe, MacArthur against the Japanese in the Pacific, and against Kim Il Sung’s and Mao’s Soviet-trained forces in Korea), where 30,000 enemy personnel in their standard order of battle would be swiftly annihilated by U.S. forces. Dealing with the same number of dispersed jihadist fanatics in the desert wastelands of Syria and Iraq requires entirely different strategies which are suited to the unconventional, fourth-generation warfare. Trump’s learning curve on military and strategic issues apparently leaves a lot to be desired.

Asked about his promise of a quick victory against ISIS, Trump replied that “part of the problem that we’ve had is we go in, we defeat somebody, and then we don’t know what we’re doing after that. We lose it, like as an example, you look at Iraq, what happened, how badly that was handled . . . And if you really look at the aftermath of Iraq, Iran is going to be taking over Iraq.” Lauer pressed him on the details (“you very often say, I’m not going to give you the details because I want to be unpredictable”), Trump replied: “If I win, I don't want to broadcast to the enemy exactly what my plan is.”

Comment: Trump was vague on his “plan,” which he can afford because he was not privy to the disastrous past decisions, but the assertion of “unpredictability” is no substitute for a coherent strategic design. Its contours can be stated without compromising its essence. His critique of the absence of endgame in Iraq is valid, but he did not answer the question.

Asked about his plan to de-escalate the tensions with Russia, Trump replied with a media bombshell: “I would have a very, very good relationship with Putin. And I think I would have a very, very good relationship with Russia . . . Russia wants to defeat ISIS as badly as we do. If we had a relationship with Russia, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could work on it together and knock the hell out of ISIS? Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?”

If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him. I’ve already said, he is really very much of a leader. I mean, you can say, oh, isn't that a terrible thing—the man has very strong control over a country. Now, it's a very different system, and I don’t happen to like the system. But certainly, in that system, he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader. We have a divided country.

Comment: This is the most important segment of Trump’s performance. Yes, it was worded somewhat clumsily, but it reflects his crucial understanding that there are no inherent, ideologically or geopolitically determined conflicts between Russia and the United States; and, more importantly in the short term, that there is a community of strategic interests between them in fighting jihadism. He understands that this is a joint endeavor for two civilizationally kindred nations. This is light years away from Hillary Clinton’s approach—she was the first politician of note to hitlerize Putin—and it was a bold statement in the light of its likely mainstream media treatment (they performed on cue, “Trump Praises Putin” etc).

On the whole Trump did better than Clinton because he does not need the script—she was often pausing after just a few words—and because he swiftly assumed command over Lauer, ignoring his interruptions. He did not restate his “America First” grand strategic vision, which was a mistake, but Clinton provided no vision at all. On this form, he has nothing to fear from the forthcoming debates.

Five months ago I wrote that Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign is largely founded on her claim to possess foreign policy experience and acumen, but that her record provides an alarming picture of what kind of president we may get next November:

As a key exponent of the liberal-interventionist credo of American exceptionalism . . . she is temperamentally prone to forceful action in the name of “doing good.” At the same time Hillary Clinton is loath to take any responsibility for the predictable consequences of mission-creep and chaos.  She has declared that it is “too soon to tell” how Libya will turn out . . . and she has indicated that she would act more forcefully in Syria . . . If Hillary Clinton becomes president, there will be  many similar “tantalizing” temptations. She has neither the wisdom nor the intelligence to resist them. The future is grim.

The NBC Commander-in-Chief Forum last Wednesday has done nothing to change this verdict.

 

[Image credit: By Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (Donald Trump) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

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