The Cable

Debate Gaffes, Platitudes and Absurdities On National Security

On nuclear weapons, war strategy and cyber threats, Trump stumbled and Clinton avoided specifics

HEMPSTEAD, NY - SEPTEMBER 26:  Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump gestures during the Presidential Debate at Hofstra University on September 26, 2016 in Hempstead, New York.  The first of four debates for the 2016 Election, three Presidential and one Vice Presidential, is moderated by NBC's Lester Holt.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
HEMPSTEAD, NY - SEPTEMBER 26: Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump gestures during the Presidential Debate at Hofstra University on September 26, 2016 in Hempstead, New York. The first of four debates for the 2016 Election, three Presidential and one Vice Presidential, is moderated by NBC's Lester Holt. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

After the first debate of the U.S. presidential election, voters and foreign governments are likely more perplexed than ever before about where America could be headed on crucial national security issues, thanks to a litany of contradictory and confusing statements from Republican nominee Donald Trump — as well as another round of vague platitudes from his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

Perhaps the most bizarre moment in a night of bizarre moments on Monday came when Trump fumbled a question about whether he favored ruling out any “first use” of nuclear weapons by the United States.

It was not clear if he understood what “first use” means, and his tortured syntax didn’t help.

“I would like everybody to end it, just get rid of it,” said Trump, apparently meaning scrapping all nuclear weapons.  

“But I would certainly not do first strike.”

Then in the next breath, Trump reversed himself: “At the same time, we have to be prepared. I can’t take anything off the table.”

Since the advent of atomic weapons, no U.S. president has ever ruled out the possibility of launching a nuclear attack first before an enemy strikes. The Obama administration has considered possibly declaring a “no first use” policy but has reportedly opted against the change.

Trump’s contradictory, tentative comments caught the attention of nuclear policy wonks from both parties. And his answer, in which he referred to “the nuclear” or just “nuclear,” also ventured into unchartered grammatical territory.

Here are the other national security “highlights” — or gaps — from debate night:

The wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan:

One of the two candidates on the debate stage  ultimately will be charged with overseeing the military campaigns to retake the Islamic State-held cities of Mosul, in Iraq, and Raqqa, in Syria. Within months of taking office, the new president will have to work through a latticework of constantly shifting local alliances to keep some sort of peace in those sprawling cities while keeping Russian and Turkish forces — and political complexities — at bay.   

Yet more mental energy was spent Monday  debating police tactics in New York City and 1990s-era beauty pageant contestants than how to close out 15 years of Washington’s wars — in which approximately 13,000 U.S. troops remain on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. Clinton stuck to the points she has long advocated: ramping up airstrikes on ISIS fighters, launching an “intelligence surge” to pinpoint targets while hitting extremists before they can attack Americans, and doubling down on eliminating the Islamic State’s leadership.  

In short, continuing what President Barack Obama has been doing, just more of it. And Clinton made no mention of imposing a “no-fly-zone” in Syria, a proposal she has advocated during the political campaign, and gave no indication whether she would take a tougher line with the regime in Damascus.

Trump, as always, wouldn’t reveal his so-called secret plan to win the war against ISIS, while complaining that “we should have taken the oil” before leaving Iraq, an idea he has never explained. Apart from being illegal and physically impossible, as some senior officers have pointed out, it would require thousands of U.S. troops to stay behind to guard the oil facilities.

Allies and Treaties

Security concerns over Russia and China were left out of the debate almost entirely, but Trump resumed his complaints about NATO, and made more factually-challenged statements.

Opening his remarks by saying “I haven’t given lots of thought to NATO,” the Republican standard-bearer again blasted European allies for failing to contribute enough to fund the alliance. But his wording suggests a strictly business-centric view of international obligations, as when he said, “we’re defending them, and they should at least be paying us what they’re supposed to be paying by treaty and contract.”

The United States doesn’t run NATO, so no country owes Washington anything. But it is true that most European treaty allies are paying less than the 2 percent required by the NATO pact.

The second NATO point is much sillier because it is so easily disproven, even if it’s become one of Trump’s standard lines. He has claimed that thanks to his charges earlier this year that NATO is “obsolete,” the alliance has since established “a major terror division.” On Monday he humble-bragged, “believe me — I’m sure I’m not going to get credit for it — but that was largely because of what I was saying and my criticism of NATO.” He made the same claim in his August counterterrorism speech.

Not true. What Trump is referring to is the creation of a new post, the assistant secretary general for intelligence, which the alliance has had in the works for some time, well before Trump’s criticisms. The candidate also suggested that “I think we have to get NATO to go into the Middle East with us,” which ignores a few key factors in the reality-based world. Approximately 5,000 NATO troops are currently on the ground in Afghanistan, while teams of allied military intelligence officers sit side-by-side with U.S. forces in the anti-ISIS coalition’s headquarters in Qatar. Dozens of NATO airplanes are also conducting daily airstrikes on ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and several hundred NATO soldiers are on the ground — right now — in Iraq training the Iraqi army.

Trump also repeated his sweeping claims that the United States is defending allies such as Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia without getting paid for it. In the case of Japan and South Korea, where large numbers of troops have been stationed for decades, the host governments spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year covering costs associated with the American military presence. And there is no large U.S. military footprint in the Saudi Arabia. It’s hard to quantify how much it would cost to keep the American troops on bases in the United States compared to Japan or South Korea, experts say. But what is true is that these countries have spent billions of dollars purchasing U.S.-manufactured fighter jets, missiles, helicopters, and an array of other weaponry.

‘The cyber’

Monday’s debate may go down in the history books as a milestone for cyber warfare’s entry into the public imagination. In a two-candidate presidential debate, computer security issues opened a discussion of war and peace, a recognition that the conflicts of the future will be fought at least in part in the fifth domain — cyberspace.

So how did the candidates rate in their understanding of future war? It was a decidedly mixed bag, with Trump providing most of the rhetorical zingers and pratfalls.

It was inevitable that the two candidates’ children would somehow figure into the debate, but when Baron Trump made a cameo in a discussion of the difficulties of computer defense, things took a turn for the absurd. “I have a son. He’s 10 years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers, it’s unbelievable,” Trump said. “The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough. And maybe it’s hardly doable.”

“We have so many things that we have to do better, Lester, and certainly cyber is one of them,” Trump said, addressing the debate moderator, NBC’s Lester Holt.

After Clinton pointedly blamed Russia for breaking into the servers of the Democratic National Committee, Trump followed up by implying that America’s offensive capabilities in cyberspace don’t quite measure up to Moscow’s. “As far as the cyber,” Trump said, adding a definite article in front of a word that is most certainly not a noun, “we should be better than anybody else, and perhaps we’re not.”

That assessment isn’t quite true. While it’s difficult to compare countries’ offensive abilities in cyberspace, the United States is generally thought to be the best player in the game. With some $10.8 billion in funding, the NSA represents a well-resourced, highly experienced signals intelligence agency.

For her part, Clinton sketched out a more hawkish position on the issue and said she might draw on America’s skilled hackers to deter its adversaries in cyberspace. “We need to make it very clear — whether it’s Russia, China, Iran or anybody else — the United States has much greater capacity,” Clinton said. “And we’re going to have to make it clear that we don’t want to use the kinds of tools that we have. We don’t want to engage in a different kind of warfare. But we will defend the citizens of this country.”

Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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