Wonk versus world salad in the first presidential debate
by MATTHEW GAULT
Military issues and the language of war loomed like a shadow over the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. During an early exchange about climate change, Clinton promised, “we can deploy half a million new solar panels.”
Moments later, in the middle of a back-and-forth over economic policy, Trump attacked Clinton for having a clear and stated plan for defeating Islamic State. “You’re telling the enemy everything you want to do,” Trump said. “No wonder you’ve been fighting ISIS your entire adult life.”
Which doesn’t make any sense. Clinton was born in 1947. At that time, ISIS was barely a dream in the fevered mind of Sayyid Qutb. Throughout the rest of the evening, Clinton stood composed and gave cogent answers backed by fact and policy.
Trump brought up ISIS, Iran and “law and order” every time he could. But his sideshow antics didn’t play this time. He stumbled through long, rambling answers to straightforward questions, lobbed insults at Clinton whenever he could and betrayed his ignorance of even the most basic foreign and domestic issues.
That’s nothing new. What is new is that he’s sharing the stage with a vicious and practiced politician — something Trump claims to despise. At the end of the evening, I understood that — for good or for ill — Clinton’s presidency would be a continuation of Pres. Barack Obama’s military policies.
Trump told the world that America could no longer police the world … unless the world were willing to pay for the service. Trump wants to be Extorter-In-Chief.
America expects great theater from presidential debates — and that’s what we got on Sept. 26, 2016. Let’s set aside Trump’s sniffling nose, Clinton’s condescension and all the fun verbal jabs that’ll be playing on the nightly news for the next month, and focus on what the candidates said.
For Clinton, it was a wealth of information. For Trump, it all secrets and insults. The moderator Lester Holt divided the debate into three sections — “achieving prosperity,” “America’s direction” and “securing America.”
The first section was largely an indictment of trickle-down economics, with both sides pointing fingers. Clinton sold hope, promising to pursue a broadly progressive economic policy. Trump flailed. He vowed the world he’d release his tax returns … if Clinton released her deleted emails.
During the “America’s direction” portion of the debate, Trump vaguely promised to take guns away from people who shouldn’t have them. The birther sideshow enjoyed an encore performance, and Trump made an ass of himself while Clinton grinned.
Then moderator Holt asked the candidates questions about national security — and Trump betrayed his deep ignorance of all things military.
It started with Internet security questions. “I think cyber-security will be one of the biggest challenges facing the next president,” Clinton began. “Increasingly, we’re seeing cyber attacks from states … the most recent and troubling of these has been Russia.”
“The United States has much greater capacity and we’re not going to sit idly by and permit state actors to go after … our private sector information or our public sector information,” she continued. “We don’t want to use the kinds of tools we have, we don’t want to engage in a different type of warfare, but we’re going to defend the citizens of our country. And the Russians need to understand that.”
Clinton’s message here is an unsubtle allusion to the untapped power of America’s cyber-security forces. She’s saying that if she’s president, she won’t treat the Russians with kids gloves. She’s not wrong, America has already allegedly built doomsday cyber-weapons and, to borrow a phrase from the Madame Secretary, deployed them. Google “Stuxnet.”
On ISIS, Clinton’s plan is much the same as Obama’s current plan — stay the course. “We have to intensify our air strikes against ISIS,” she started. “Within the year we’ll be able to push [them] out of Iraq and then really squeeze them in Syria.”
She then gave specific cities she’d go into and advocated the assassination of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. Clinton has long been a fan of the use of drones to eliminate high-value targets. It’s nothing new.
Trump said he won’t make public his ISIS plan because he doesn’t want to reveal his plans to the enemy. He spent his time on the Islamic State issue blaming Clinton and Obama for its creation. Which isn’t even remotely true.
“Had we taken the oil … and we should have taken the oil … they wouldn’t have even formed,” Trump said. That, of course, would be a war crime.
The whole evening was a shit show, but no portion was more disturbing than the final moments when Trump disavowed NATO and said he’d hold the world’s security hostage to make a few extra bucks off the backs of America’s allies.
“The 28 countries of NATO … many of them aren’t paying their fair share,” Trump explained. “We’re defending them and they should be paying their fare share. Number two, NATO could be obsolete … they do not focus on terror.”
“We pay approximately 73 percent of the cost of NATO,” Trump added. “That’s a lot of money to protect other people.” He’s fudging numbers here. NATO recommends that member states spend two percent of their GDP on defense — and yes, it is true that not every country meets that standard.
But the Pentagon doesn’t subsidize those countries’ militaries. Nor do budget shortfalls mean America should walk away from its treaties and obligations. NATO is important. It’s a bulwark against Russian aggression … and Russia is aggressive.
Clinton obviously understands this. She treats Russian president Vladimir Putin as a threat — and his actions in cyberspace, Crimea and Ukraine back up her assertion. Trump is a businessman and he sees Russian aggression as a business opportunity. When Moscow gets serious, Trump wants to up the material cost of fulfilling America’s extant obligations.
It’s like a police officer asking for a raise during a hostage negotiation. It’s gross, negligent and deplorable. Clinton sensed that during the debate. “We have mutual defense treaties and we will honor them,” she said.
I can’t believe I needed a presidential candidate to say that, but I did. With Clinton, America will get a distasteful politician who’s hawkish on defense and progressive at home.
I have no idea what we’d get should we elect Trump. Never has that been more clear than during the first presidential debate of 2016.
“We can not protect countries all over the world where they’re not paying us what we need,” Trump said of Clinton in his closing comments. “She doesn’t say that because she has no business ability.”
Thank God she doesn’t.