- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Donald Trump, when asked about how he would get America’s military leaders to come up with a plan to defeat the Islamic State, responded, “They’ll probably be different generals, to be honest.”
Speaking at a televised forum with veterans Wednesday night, the Republican nominee for president explained that our current military leaders “have been losing for us for a long period of time” and indicated that he would replace at many of them with the retired generals and admirals who have endorsed him.
He took the opportunity also to underscore his utter lack of confidence in the military’s top people. “I think under the leadership of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the generals have been reduced to rubble…. I have great faith in the military. I have great faith in certain of the commanders, certainly. But I have no faith in Hillary Clinton or the leadership.”
If Trump were elected and followed through on these statements, it would represent an extraordinary and perhaps unprecedented politicization of the modern U.S. military. It certainly would amount to the biggest such move since John F. Kennedy, early in his presidency, pinned the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 on the Joint Chiefs of Staff (incorrectly) and then systematically sought to marginalize them. Most notably, he made retired Army Gen. Maxwell Taylor his personal military advisor, effectively elbowing aside the actual chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He later recalled Taylor to active duty and made him the chairman, where he helped Kennedy enmesh the U.S. military deep in the Vietnam War.
The rest of the evening was less stunning. Trump, clad in a blue suit, a white shirt, and a red and white striped tie, mostly peddled his usual lines.
As for his ability to be president, he simply asserted, “I have great judgement. I have good judgement. I know what’s going on.” He also claimed that he would bring “common sense” to vexing foreign policy issues.
His view of what is going on is markedly different from that of many foreign policy experts. For example, he genuinely seemed inclined to ally with Russia in fighting in the Middle East. “I think I would have a very, very good relationship with Putin. And I think I would have a very, very good relationship with Russia.”
He also alleged that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, has a “happy trigger.” This phrase made more sense in context. In considering the use of force, he said, “You’re talking about death. And we’re talking death to not just our side. We’re talking death all over. I would be very, very cautious. I think I’d be a lot slower. She has a happy trigger. You look, she votes for the wars, she goes in Libya…”
The trouble with such forums is that they allow Trump to pretend that he is a normal candidate, and also to look like a potential leader. On the other hand, Trump was quick to reveal the shallowness of his knowledge. It is hard to understand a serious expert in national security supporting Trump after watching his performance last night. Indeed, few of the generals and admirals who recently endorsed him were prominent military figures, and disproportionately they came from the Air Force and the Navy, which aside from the SEALS (a tiny part of the service) have played secondary roles in the post-9/11 wars.
By contrast, such a forum is perfect for highlighting some of Clinton’s skills, as well as avoiding some of her weaknesses. Appearing in a Stendahlian outfit of red top and black slacks, she showed herself to be knowledgeable without having to try to rouse a crowd. The veterans present (there were no active duty service members, as far as I could tell) were clearly interested in what the two candidates had to say and informed about the facts. A reality-based discussion plays to Clinton and against Trump. Hence, what might have seemed dull and dutiful before a crowd of thousands appeared here to be well said and even persuasive.
For example, in discussing Iran, Clinton made the key insider’s point — don’t be distracted by the nuclear issues, look at Iran’s current meddling in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. On nukes, she said, “I think we have enough insight into what they’re doing to be able to say we have to distrust but verify.” But, she continued, “What I am focused on is all the other malicious activities of the Iranians — ballistic missiles, support for terrorists, being involved in Syria, Yemen, and other places, supporting Hezbollah, Hamas.” This is a sentence bound to warm the heart of Gen. James Mattis, the Marine general ousted by the Obama administration in part for making precisely such an argument.
Only one comment by Clinton was surprising. That was her unconditional vow that the United States would not deploy large-scale infantry units to Iraq, or to Syria. “We’re going to work to make sure that they have the support — they have special forces, as you know, they have enablers, they have surveillance, intelligence, reconnaissance help. 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.” The sentiment is admirable, but one has to wonder if this quotation ever could come back to haunt her.
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