While President Barack Obama was making another stop on his diplomatic trip to the Far East Wednesday, his would-be successors were appearing on the MSNBC cable network’s “Commander in Chief Forum,” with both spending a half-hour or so answering a series of questions about defense and foreign policy from the National Broadcasting Company’s Matt Lauer and selected members of a an audience comprised mostly of military veterans. None of it, needless to say, was at all reassuring.
A dear friend’s 70th birthday party and a principled lack of cable access kept us from watching the event live, but thanks to the modern miracle of YouTube we were able to watch all the grilling of both Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald J. Trump, and without commercial interruption at that. We can’t recommend you do, though, as the lack of direct confrontation between the candidates made for rather dreary viewing.
An unfavorable coin toss determined that Clinton would be given the first half-hour, ending that remarkable 6-for-6 coin-flipping streak that helped her win the Iowa caucus, and her bad luck didn’t end there. She had a well-crafted introductory statement about her long experience in foreign affairs as a First Lady and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as Secretary of State, and how it has honed her judgment, but that just walked right into Lauer’s first question about that unindexed and yet ongoing e-mail scandal of hers. She had a well-rehearsed answer acknowledging that it had been a mistake to use a private server for many of e-mail communications, insisted she had used only the government server for anything with a “header” indicating it was classified. She clearly hoped that no one would know that much classifiable information was coming to her attention before it could be classified, and that someone with better judgment would have treated it as such, and that there are plenty of other holes in her story. Alas, the next audience member was an Air Force veteran whose work had required security clearances, and who was convinced that he would have been jailed for the actions Clinton has now admitted, so she had to run through yet another variation on the same unconvincing lines.
Lauer then asked about Clinton’s vote as a senator in favor of the Iraq War, which is by now such an unpopular affair that the Republican nominee is bragging that he had always opposed it and that George W. Bush had lied the country into the mess. Clinton once again apologized for the vote, and rightly noted that Trump’s claims to have been opposed all along are completely baseless, then made a plausible argument that her willingness to admit and learn from mistakes has improved her judgment. Although still on the defensive she seemed to be punching back at that point, but the next question was about that awful deal the Obama administration struck with the Iranians on their nuclear weapons programs.
Clinton first noted about how she had worked to impose harsh sanctions on the Iranian government, without acknowledging that the sanctions had begun under the previous administration, then boasted that had succeeded in forcing Iran to the negotiating table. Given the worse-than-Nevill-Chamberlain sort of appeasement that resulted from the negotiations this hardly seems a success, but at least the worst of the deal was finalized by her successor as Secretary of State. She’ll be very tough in enforcing that awful package of appeasement, Clinton assured the audience, and she also talked tough about Iran’s many other outrages, and we had a certain sense that she was trying to put at least some distance between herself and the Obama administration.
There was also talk about the sorry state of the Veterans Administration, which Clinton can’t be readily blamed for and which she seemed plenty outraged about, and when asked to explain her policy toward the Islamic State “as briefly as you can” she sounded very hawkish even as she promised there would be no ground troops in either Iraq or Syria. She also talked about going after Islamic State leader Bagu al-Baghdadi, “just like we did with Osama bin Laden,” reminding the audience of the Obama administration’s biggest hit of the past seven-and-a-half-years, and finished with a vow to be tough on terrorism but making no promises to prevent it altogether.
Even Trump’s most media-averse admirers would be hard pressed to find fault with Lauer’s performance, which kept Clinton on the defensive through most of the interview. A more thorough interrogation about the e-mails would have required the hours that Republican congressional investigations spent on the matter, so we’ll also give Lauer some reluctant credit for compressing it into a few challenges about her most outrageous claims. Even Clinton’s most die-hard detractors would have to admit that she seemed quite feisty in her defense, however, with none of the coughing fits or fatigue or seizures or other afflictions that have lately been talked about all over the internet, and unless you’re already well aware of what she was talking there were no takeaway gaffes. We imagine that her most avid fans were well pleased with the performance, that her most disdainful detractors were not at all swayed, and that anyone in the undecided ranks would be waiting to hear what the Republican might say.
What the Republican had to say was hard to parse, as usual, but so far as we can tell it boiled down to him saying that everything was going to be great with him in charge, believe him. Asked what experiences he had to demonstrate the judgment to run America’s foreign he mentioned his vast business empire, which includes deals in countries overseas, some of which of are really taking advantage of the rest of the United States, believe him, so surely he could tell when it was necessary to put American military lives in harm’s way. He reiterated his lie that he was speaking out against the Iraq War before it was launched, citing an interview in GQ magazine that appeared about a year into the war as proof, and added that the Obama administration’s withdrawal from Iraq was also a “total disaster.” Trump was asked about his well-known propensity to say outrageous things, and his own recent admission that he has occasionally chosen wrong words, and how that might affect his performance as a head of state, and Trump went on about how certain wrong words were needed to defeat all those more qualified Republican candidates that stood in his way to the nomination. He then mentioned his recent trip to Mexico, where he was respectfully greeted with diplomatic protocol and didn’t say anything to get him kicked out, then bragged that the trip had been so successful that some Mexican official who arranged the trip was fired due to the Mexican public’s ensuing outrage over the invitation.
Lauer revived an old Trump quote claiming to know more about the Islamic State than the American military’s generals did, and Trump noted that the generals have no been successful thus far, although he blamed Obama and Secretaries of State Clinton and John Kerry for the failure, and that there might well be an entirely different group of generals he’ll be dealing with that, and that they’ll be the types who won’t have MacArthur and Patton spinning in their graves. He even suggested that his secret plan for defeating the Islamic State will await the 30 days he’s giving the generals to come up with their own plan, and that their might might even be incorporated into his secret plan, but in any case it’s going to be a great plan, believe him.
Whatever that plan might turn out to be, be assured that if it amounts to any military action at all it’s going to include plenty of old-fashioned plunder. Trump has embraced the far-left’s chants about “Bush lied, people died,” but he clearly has no use for that “No blood for oil” slogan, and explained that “I’ve always said we shouldn’t be in there, but if we’re going to get out, take the oil.” At this point Lauer made a rare interruption to ask how that might be accomplished, and Trump acknowledged that some people would be “left behind” to get the job done, and Lauer didn’t ask how many of these people there would be, or how many soldiers and airmen would be needed to protect them, much less the many hundreds of miles of pipelines and supply lines need for the project, not to mention the fallout from the inevitable worldwide outrage over the planet’s mightiest military power claiming waging openly proclaimed wars of plunder.
A woman who was introduced as a Democrat and a graduate of the first West Point class to include women got to ask a question about illegal immigrants being allowed in the military, seeming to favor the idea herself, and she got a big hand for that first woman West Pointer distinction, and with his usual keen sense of the crowd Trump said he would work with that. The next questions were about Russia, though, and not so easily handled.
Whatever concerns the people of Mexico or those unfortunate oil-rich lands currently held by the Islamic State might have about a Trump administration, the future of Russo-American relations look rosy indeed, believe him. Trump once again confidently predicted he would have “a good relationship with Putin, and a very good relationship with Russia,” again promised that “as long as he says good things about me, I’ll say good things about him,” protested an interjection by Lauer about the likelihood that Putin’s government hacked the Democratic National Committee by saying “nobody knows that for a fact,” lamented that Obama and Putin were photographed exchanging icy stares during the Group of 20 summit, and seemed sure he’d get a more respectful Air Force One greeting from the Russians than Obama got from the Chinese. Trump suggested a possible alliance with the Russians against the Islamic State, made no mention of Russia’s aggression in Georgia and the Ukraine and threats against much of the rest of the former Soviet empire, and when asked about such issues he said “it’s possible” that Putin will abandon his revanchist ambitions in the event of a Trump administration.
Trump was also asked about the VA, a problem he also cannot be credibly blamed for and is plenty outraged about, and he offered what seemed a sensible idea of providing vouchers for veterans to seek care in the private sector when waiting lines at the government-run doctor’s office became dangerously long. Clinton had scored some points with the veterans by opposing “privatization,” which according to the polls even scares veterans in this day and age, and we note that Trump took pains to insist his plan wasn’t “privatization.” We’d prefer a capitalist-minded Republican who’d embrace the term and make the compelling case for it, and there’s no better case to be made for it than government-run health care, but these days that’s too much to ask for. One of the last questions was about the large number of sexual-harassment charges being alleged in the military, and Trump was reminded of a “tweet” that read “What did these geniuses think when they put men and women together?,” and he defended it by saying “Many people say that.” He added that it was necessary to keep the military court system, and then later that we need to establish a military court system, and he did come out forthrightly in favor of imposing consequences for sexual assaults.
Lauer’s now being pilloried by the left for failing to press Trump on many of these statements, but from our never-Trump perspective on the right we’ll grudgingly concede that it would have been awful hard to compress all the questions into a mere half-hour. With about two-thirds of Clinton’s interview spent on the defensive we’ll have to kick our feet against the sand and lower our heads and say it seemed fair enough, all in all, and that the candidates had only themselves to blame.
Trump probably came out of it slightly better than even, poll-wise. Trump’s so-loyal-he-could-shoot-someone supporters got the the “take their oil” rhetoric they’ve come to expect, while Trump’s most die-hard opponents will glumly concede that at least he didn’t repeat his talk about the indiscriminate torture of detainees and the killing of their civilian relatives and the neo-con overreach of the past 16 years of American foreign policy, and the sensitive souls of the Huffington Post were even worried that might have seem slightly presidential to those who can’t spare the time to think through the implications of that “take their oil” policy. Most of Trump’s most disdainful opponents won’t bother with that, either, but in any case they’ll not be swayed.
Clinton and Trump will face each other head-to-head later this month, unless Clinton succumbs to fatal illness or Trump finds some scheduling or moderator issue as an excuse to dodge it, depending on which internet rumors you prefer to believer, and that might be more fun. At this point, though, we don’t expect it will be any more reassuring.
— Bud Norman