After months of what the military calls stand-off attacks, launched from a distance, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump finally met on the same stage Wednesday night for hand-to-hand combat.
Unfortunately for those seeking information on their respective military policies, they were separated by a half-hour, which meant there was plenty of unilluminating blather spewed by both candidates. That’s to be expected when neither has issued a detailed national-security blueprint or spelled out their plans to defeat ISIS with any specificity.
The candidates ran through their talking points—little they haven't said before—set apart by stirring martial music, a "live exclusive" MSNBC logo on the screen, and nasal-spray and bladder-control advertisements. Of course, with each candidate limited to about 25 minutes, they couldn't say much. Clinton spent much of her allotted time responding to questions over her lousy email security while serving as secretary of state. By the time a veteran asked her a serious question about defeating ISIS, moderator Matt Lauer jumped in, encouraging her to answer "as briefly as you can."
Clinton said she would follow the plodding path blazed by President Obama. “We are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again, and we are not putting ground troops into Syria,” she said. “We’re going to defeat ISIS without committing American ground troops.” Trump didn't address the issue, except to confirm he would destroy ISIS quickly. "The generals have been reduced to rubble," he argued of the U.S. military's high command, their hands tied by an overly cautious White House.
But Trump, who said last year that he knew "more about ISIS than the generals do," has suddenly done an about face and says he will order "my generals"—itself a jarring construction—to devise a plan to defeat ISIS. Obama, of course, has done that as well, and has decided on a go-slow approach to grind the caliphate into dust. Sure, the U.S. could steamroll into the Syrian city of Raqqa, crushing at least ISIS’s physical capital. “I’ve talked to some U.S. generals who are really frustrated,” retired Marine general Anthony Zinni told Time Aug. 31. “They could be in Raqqa in a week.” But that would only set off a new wave of problems, as the U.S. has learned, relearned, and learned again in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Trump dismissed such concerns. In a non-sequitur, he suggested that a Trump Administration would "take the oil" to end such turmoil.
The evening highlighted one real difference. U.S. national security has been largely on autopilot since the end of the Cold War 25 years ago. Clinton, part of the Establishment ever since (member of the Senate Armed Services Committee for six years; Secretary of State for four), has made clear she won’t rock that boat. Trump, reflecting the views of a lot of Americans who don’t feel their nation’s investment in blood and treasure paid off in either Afghanistan or Iraq, vows to retreat from nation-building, while pumping billions more into the U.S. military than currently allowed by law.
But why let legalities get in the way? While it’s clear that a President Trump would try to make wholesale changes in the U.S. military, it’s just as clear that—absent a dictatorship—most of what he wants to do will never happen. But some of it might. After all, no one saw the end of the Soviet Union coming when Ronald Reagan was running for president. It was his push for a big increase in military spending, and a new breed of Soviet leader in the person of Mikhail Gorbachev, that led to its collapse. Major nuclear-arms reductions negotiated by Gorbachev and Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush, were icing on the cake, and marked the last major progress on controlling nuclear weapons. Sometimes upsetting the apple cart works; sometimes, as in the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, it simply fails.
The forum came hours after Trump issued a laundry list of military reinforcements he would seek—more ships, planes, troops and a "state of the art" missile-defense system—without any framework showing how this might lead to improved U.S. security, or how the nation could afford them. In any case, such investments would do nothing to thwart ISIS. Three times Trump called the U.S. military "depleted." But the U.S. military has been the world's best for the past 75 years. While that doesn't prove Trump is wrong, it does make his claim largely irrelevant.
The nation has made it clear that it is unwilling to spend more money on its military. The legally-mandated sequester, which limits spending across the federal government, is halfway through its decade-long mandate, despite repeated attempts by some in Congress to scrap it. And promises to take better care of the nation’s veterans (a subject of several vets' questions) overlooks the fact that the Obama Administration has boosted spending by the Department of Veterans Affairs by more than 85%. There has been trouble for vets seeking help, but once they get it they tend to be satisfied.
A President Trump could trigger big changes around the world by restraining U.S. military might and shrinking those regions deemed vital U.S. national-security interests. But that too can boomerang, as Dean Acheson, President Truman’s Secretary of State, discovered after placing South Korea outside U.S. protection in 1950, shortly before North Korea invaded.
The most dispiriting thing Wednesday night was the grim view of the world the candidates gave Americans, with their relentless focus on fighting and terror. That, in part, comes from candidates eager to court—some might say pander to—the military vote. There was scant optimism, reflecting the hunkered-down nature of U.S. politics since 9/11. The frontier spirit that made the U.S.—a national character trait for more than two centuries—was nowhere on the deck of the USS Intrepid, docked in the Hudson River.
More than 500,000 Americans have died on U.S. highways since 9/11. A U.S. resident is 1,000 times more likely to die in a car crash than a terrorist attack. While the federal government has succeeded in reducing the number of vehicle fatalities, few blame the federal government for the asphalt carnage. But because such deaths are an everyday occurrence, they have become part of the white noise of American life.
You wouldn’t know it from listening to the candidates, but the world today is less violent than it has been in generations. If the candidates had focused on that Wednesday night, instead of heightening fears over relatively small threats, the evening could have been inspiring, as well as informative.