#NatSec2016: The Implications of Unliked Candidates for National Security

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump prepare to spar over foreign policy. It’s the dream matchup nobody wanted, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten:

No past candidate comes close to Clinton, and especially Trump, in terms of engendering strong dislike a little more than six months before the election. …

No major party nominee before Clinton or Trump had a double-digit net negative “strong favorability” rating. Clinton’s would be the lowest ever, except for Trump. …

Voters see this campaign, for now, as truly a choice between the lesser of two evils.

Oh well — one of these two “evils” will be running American foreign policy starting in January 2017. How do they match up? The BBC’s Kim Ghattas gives us a preview:

Past presidential elections have often brought speculation about the importance of foreign policy in the debate but it is rarely a determining factor in how people vote. But this election comes at an inflection point for the [United States] and beyond the specifics of policies on the Middle East or China, the general theme of America’s role in the world has been on the mind of deeply anxious voters. Trump has tapped into an isolationist mood in the country that will prove a challenge for Clinton, a strong proponent of America’s continued, engaged leadership.

This is likely to be the foreign policy issue of the campaign: Clinton’s status quo “blob”-ism versus Trump’s more old-school, restrained worldview. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius says this will actually be tough on Clinton:

Trump’s venomous rhetoric about Mexicans and Muslims obscures the core of his message — and its appeal for many Americans who are tired of paying the bills for others’ security. Many commentators savaged Trump’s April 27 foreign policy speech, in effect likening it to putting lipstick on a pig, but he made five serious arguments: U.S. resources are overextended; U.S. allies aren’t paying their fair share for defense; America’s friends think they can’t depend on us; rivals no longer respect us; and the country lacks clear foreign policy goals.

Take the question of NATO: It’s an unfortunate fact that support for the transatlantic alliance is gradually eroding in the United States. A poll last year by the Pew Research Center showed that just 49 percent of Americans had a favorable view of NATO, compared with 53 percent in 2009. That’s why Trump’s diatribes resonate with his neo-isolationist base.

Clinton needs to answer this critique directly. She needs to explain why the United States has a stake in a messy world. She needs to offer a clear explanation of how she would restore the credibility of American power without entangling the country in unwinnable new conflicts. She’s seen as more willing to use military force than President Obama, but what would that mean in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and the South China Sea?

Indeed, and she’ll have to do this while trying not to criticize a president who is still very popular within Democratic circles. Expect a 30,000-foot fight about America’s role in the world but without much on-the-ground policy substance (at least, on purpose, from one candidate). This could be quite fun, and frustrating, to watch.

Would a Trump nomination help solidify President Obama’s foreign policy legacy? Perhaps in a couple of critical areas, according to the Associated Press’ Josh Lederman, even though “a Trump presidency would be bad news for most of Obama’s legacy.” What are these two areas? First, Cuba:

Obama has spent more than a year working to make his historic rapprochement with Cuba irreversible. With Trump as the nominee, it appears closer ties are here to stay.

Unlike Cruz, the son of a Cuban immigrant, and the other Republican candidates who vociferously opposed Obama’s policy, Trump has said that a half-century of estrangement was plenty.

“I think it’s fine,” Trump said of Obama’s outstretched hand. “But we should have made a better deal.”

And the other? Iran. Yeah, you read that right — Iran:

Trump is no fan of Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. But he’s one of the only GOP contenders this year to suggest he would not rescind it — at least temporarily.

Cruz pledged to rip the deal “to shreds” on his first day in office. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said he couldn’t stand behind it. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio promised to re-impose sanctions. And Carly Fiorina said her second call as president — her first would be to Israel — would be to Iran’s supreme leader to issue an ultimatum.

Not Trump.

“We have a horrible contract, but we do have a contract,” Trump has said.

Acknowledging it would be popular to say he’d rip up the deal, Trump says instead he’d seek to renegotiate it and “police” Iran for violations.

“You know, I’ve taken over plenty of bad contracts where I’ve bought things where deals have gone bad because the people doing it didn’t know what they were doing,” Trump has said.

For the record, the other two areas where Trump might continue Obama’s policies are on healthcare and gay and transgender rights. If you’re a little dumbfounded, I don’t blame you. It was never impossible that Trump and Obama would agree on certain areas of policy. But these two foreign policy agreements are pretty big and legacy-defining for Obama, making the agreements all the more striking. The Clinton camp needs to think strongly about how they’ll approach Trump on these issues, assuming he doesn’t flip-flop on them before the general. It looks like we’re already getting some sneak peaks.

Would the founding fathers agree with Trump? Politico Magazine’s Michael Hirsh says George Washington et al. “would have loved ‘America First.’” Trump’s:

“America First” campaign theme has far deeper roots in the history of this country than most pundits are acknowledging. Indeed, Trump shouldn’t be dismissed as a mere apostate in his view of America’s role in the world; against the backdrop of all 239 years of America’s existence, he represents more a reversion to the American norm. Trump, in condemning one of the worst instances of American overreach in U.S. history, the Iraq invasion, declared in his speech: “The world must know we do not go abroad in search of enemies.” The line was an allusion to the famous injunction of John Quincy Adams in 1821 that America “does not go in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” Adams went on to warn, somewhat presciently, America should know that “once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.” …

When Adams gave his “monsters abroad” speech, he was only channeling the fundamental beliefs of the Founders, starting with his father, John Adams, and his mentor, Thomas Jefferson, who warned against “entangling alliances” abroad. And of course George Washington, who wrote in his farewell address on Sept. 17, 1796 (though the actual words were probably drafted by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison): “Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. … Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice? It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world…”

There are a few things I want to say about this. First, Trump’s claim that he was emphatically against the Iraq War is false (we also covered this last week). Second, Trump’s foreign policy speech was, in the words of Slate’s Fred Kaplan, “a mess of contradictions.” Equating his rhetoric to that of the founding fathers is too laudatory. After all, what we do know is that Trump surely has a coherent worldview, but no coherent foreign policies (Rosa Brooks and I disagree on this point).

Lastly, and I’m expecting a lot of hate mail for this, who cares about the similarities between the founding fathers’ foreign policy views and those of Trump? The foreign policies America’s earliest leaders sought worked for the times they were in. But they never had to deal with the kind of world we’re in now. As non-state actors become more important on the global stage, technology changes all domains of human affairs, and more states’ power grows closer to the United States, policies needed today never even occurred in the imagination of our framers.

Look, I’m a fan of the founding fathers. I just don’t think they’re the greatest guide to the future of U.S. foreign and national security policy. That Trump happens to share an ideological space with some of them is interesting, but it doesn’t mean he’ll be up on Mount Rushmore anytime soon.

Does The Donald appreciate veterans? That’s not so clear cut, reports Military Times’ Leo Shane III. Start with Sen. John McCain, of whom Trump said he wasn’t a war hero because he was a POW and he prefers “people who weren’t captured.”

“What he said about me, that’s fine,” McCain said. “I don’t require any repair of that. But when he said ‘I don’t like people who were captured,’ then there’s a great body of American heroes that would like to see him retract that statement.” …

“I think it’s important for Donald Trump to express his appreciation for veterans, not John McCain, but veterans who were incarcerated as prisoners of war,” he said.

After McCain’s statements, the Clinton campaign sprang into action:

Members of Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton’s campaign seized on those comments, releasing a letter from 50 prominent veterans calling on Trump to “stop using vets as political props, donate the rest of the money he raised and build a real understanding of the needs and concerns of the men and women who have served America.”

The donation mention calls back to Trump’s veterans-themed fundraiser in February, organized as a protest of a Fox News debate. Trump announced the event had raised $6 million for veterans charities, but campaign officials have refused repeated requests to account for all of the money.

The letter calls Trump’s campaign missteps part of a larger pattern of disrespect for troops and veterans, and blasted the business mogul for “putting our future veterans at risk with a risky and incoherent foreign policy.”

In response to all these criticisms, Trump said:

“I don’t want to be hurting our vets. …We treat illegal immigrants better than we treat our vets. So I’m going to do nothing to hurt our vets. I’m going to only help our vets.”

For your humble #NatSec2016 writer, Trump’s rampant disrespect for veterans is one of the most underappreciated aspects of his candidacy. His comments about McCain and his unwillingness to give the money he promised to veterans are both horrendous. If this is how he treats veterans as a candidate, why should the American public trust him to take care of our warriors when they come home from war? For a guy who wants to put “America First,” he sure has a funny way of showing it. (And, yes, he has a plan to take care of veterans, but rarely has it featured as part of his campaign.) And yet…

Troops prefer Trump to Clinton. That’s the conclusion from an unscientific Military Times poll. If you believe the results, it’s not even close. In a survey of 951 active-duty troops, they chose Trump by a 2-to-1 margin (54 percent would vote for Trump; 25 percent would vote for Clinton; and 21 percent would abstain from voting for either candidate).

That’s astounding (although unscientific), but so is this bit:

Officers were more likely to back Clinton than enlisted troops, though the officers still favored Trump by a 46 percent to 32 percent tally. Enlisted respondents broke 58 percent to 21 percent for Trump.

Although, the real headline should’ve been the general attitudes of those surveyed:

  • “Weakest field of my adult life.”
  • “Absolutely disgusted by this election cycle.”
  • “It’s a lose/lose situation no matter what.”
  • “They all suck.”

Dozens also noted plans to vote for a third-party candidate, citing their dissatisfaction with the major party choices.

While this isn’t a scientific study, the implication is our troops will not be fond of their commander-in-chief, just like many American citizens. Will they still do the job? Sure. But will they do it happily? The jury is still out. While I expect Trump to use this for his own purposes, don’t hang your hat on its conclusions just yet. After all, it’s only May.


Alex Ward is an Associate Director of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security where he works on U.S. defense policy, strategy, and now focuses primarily on the presidential election and foreign policy. He tweets at @AlexWardB.


Image: DonkeyHotey, CC

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