Written by former Amb. Robert Hunter, AIC Board Member
Following Hillary Clinton’s June 2 foreign policy speech in San Diego, California, the whole world knows what she thinks of Donald Trump’s becoming commander-in-chief next January. “[His ideas] are dangerously incoherent. They’re not even really ideas—just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds, and outright lies.”
Anyone who has any sense of the requirements of US foreign policy and national security must consider his becoming US president a prospect devoutly not to be wished. Even if Trump has just been trash-talking about the world and America’s place in it to gain the media’s full attention (it works), and even if he could turn from Mr. Hyde into Dr. Jekyll when entering the Oval Office (hardly likely), what he has said so far surely disqualifies him for the office. He has certainly scared the pants off all of America’s friends and allies abroad, and that is not something easily reversed—if ever.
Failing some deus ex machina—and even an angry God would not want to give us Donald Trump—Hillary Clinton will be the next president of the United States, however hard the US mainstream media work to keep the Trump charade going, for entertainment value (and hence profits) if nothing else.
So why did Clinton make this “attack dog” speech against Trump?
Diminishing by Comparison
First, there is value in lining up, in row upon row, the things that Trump has actually said since he declared for president. Clinton spared him—and us—nothing in this listing, and it’s not a pretty sight for a serious nation.
Second, she is obviously tired of all the airtime and printer’s ink that the mainstream media, aided by much of the social media, have been lavishing on Trump. Whatever else he is, he is not a fool when it comes to understanding the growth of media power in shaping public perceptions of presidential candidates and submerging serious discussion of issues beneath entertainment. Issues are boring and bring in little ad revenue; a loud-mouth who can coin a salty phrase or indulge in outrageous acts on demand will grab and hold the media’s attention every time. Thus the San Diego speech was a dare to the media to stop being bedazzled by Trump’s hijinks and focus on what he actually says about the important business of national security.
Third, Clinton wanted to remind us all of her long resume of public service, including in foreign policy, and not just as an onlooker (First Lady) but as a participant in two branches of government: eight years a senator who served on the Armed Services Committee and then secretary of state. Next to that, Trump has no relevant experience at all.
Finally, Clinton wants to prove that she passes the one test imposed by the vast majority of Americans when they decide whether a candidate is up to the job in foreign policy and national security. Several election cycles ago, I dubbed this the “commander-in-chief test,” or, put more simply, “Can I trust this person to keep the nation safe?”
For almost everyone save the Washington talking heads, passing this test is not about having plans for this or that crisis of the moment. Nor is it about having rubbed shoulders with foreign leaders (in San Diego, Clinton said that she’d “gone toe-to-toe with Russia and China”) or visiting a lot of countries (Clinton reminded us that she set a record of 112 as secretary of state). It is whether the candidate seems to have good judgment and deals effectively with whatever crisis comes along: a matter of show not tell.
At the same time, temperament matters, as Clinton reminded her audience in San Diego by arguing, credibly, that Trump is “temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability, and immense responsibility.”
This is the element of Clinton’s speech that begins to raise doubts, about herself as well as Trump. With her extensive resume and bona fides in foreign policy and national security, the reasons cited above do not seem sufficient to justify this speech. Instead of focusing on her own vision for America’s future in the world and how she plans to lead us there, she devoted most of her arguments to attacking Trump. Surely, that task could be left to campaign surrogates and to that part of the media that sees beyond journalistic self-interest to the good of the country. Further, since she will be elected president, why jump into this particular issue? It certainly wasn’t needed for electoral purposes. Instead, by being decidedly unpresidential, it pulled her down toward Trump’s level.
Generally, when presidential candidates leave the rough-and-tumble of domestic issues and discuss the outside world, they focus almost exclusively on demonstrating their own qualifications to lead the country abroad. In 1992, Bill Clinton gave six foreign policy speeches (full disclosure: I helped to write five of the six), and none of them attacked George H.W. Bush. In part, Bush was a sitting president and his office commanded respect. In part, even though Bush was vulnerable on some foreign policy issues, his overall record was solid. But mostly Bill Clinton wanted people to focus on his own qualities to be president and commander-in-chief, not on Bush’s deficiencies or, for that matter, on those of any of Clinton’s competitors for the Democratic nomination.
Hillary Clinton took some risks in giving this speech. She has already been challenged regarding her own judgment, going back many years, and Trump and the Republicans will continue hammering this point. Two incidents during her tenure at the State Department stand out: her explanations of what happened at the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in June 2012, and her use of a private server to conduct all of her official email business. For people with a lot of experience in government, however, the former incident can be excused as part of the “fog of war.” The latter, meanwhile, qualifies as a slipshod practice, though on the scale of transgressions much closer to a peccadillo than a capital crime. But in the phrase that gained currency with Richard Nixon and Watergate, it is “not the crime but the cover-up” that matters.
Of course, the two incidents cited are not in the same class as Nixon’s and are not much in the way of cover-up. But they do provide some insight into how she responds in a crisis. The Benghazi incident in particular renews the focus on her strong support for using military force to overthrow Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, where no US security interest was at stake, and her lack of follow-up, as secretary of state, which contributed to Libya’s current chaos.
She has also charged Trump with inconsistency, though she too errs in this regard. Thus in San Diego she took him on regarding trade: “He wants to start a trade war with China. And I understand a lot of Americans have concerns about our trade agreements—I do too.” The point is not that “I do too,” but that she was an original champion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, then when it proved during the campaign to be unpopular, she came out against it, and now she only “has concerns.” This topic could usefully have been left off the list of Trump’s sins.
More important questions relate to her stewardship at the State Department. During her tenure, the White House and National Security Council Staff usurped the State Department’s role in helping to set foreign policy, as she points out in her biography, Hard Choices (and further confirmed by Vali Nasr, a key aide, in The Dispensable Nation). Morale at State suffered, particularly within the Foreign Service. Yet with Bill and Hillary Clinton’s political importance to President Barack Obama, she was “fireproof” and could have pushed back against White House usurpation of State’s prerogatives. She could also have put a stop to the practice of junior NSC staffers phoning US embassies abroad and giving policy instructions, undercutting the legal authority of the secretary of state and America’s ambassadors. At the same time, as secretary of state, Clinton did little to develop strategies for America’s future in the world—always a key requirement of the State Department—and didn’t bring onto her team people capable of doing so, an ominous precedent.
Further, at San Diego, she said that “we need to embrace all the tools of American power, especially diplomacy and development, to be on the frontlines solving problems.” Yet as secretary, she did nothing to shift the balance of national security spending from the Defense Department to her own department and left the “tools” of “diplomacy and development” as weak as she found them. This is not surprising, considering her own hawkish stands on some key issues, and especially Russia and Iran, as she laid out last year at the Brookings Institution and in the candidate debates this year. This included her saying this week that “When President Obama took office, Iran was racing toward a nuclear bomb.” It may have been just a rhetorical flourish, but as secretary of state, with unfettered access to US intelligence, she has to be aware that the intelligence community rejected that assessment.
One striking point she repeated in her San Diego speech related to President Obama’s decision to send Navy SEALS to capture or kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, which she called “as crisp and courageous a display of leadership as I’ve ever seen.” This paralleled her answer in one of the television debates when she cited this moment as the most courageous decision she had ever made (though it was Obama’s decision, not hers.) “Do we want [Trump] making those calls?” she asked this week. Well, probably not. But it was a poor example. This was not like Jimmy Carter’s decision in 1980 to try rescuing US hostages held in Tehran in an attempt that put their lives at greater risk. In fact, other than the possibility that Obama—and presumably Hillary Clinton, as well—would have got some political egg on their faces if the mission had failed, going after Bin Laden was one of the easiest calls he has made as president.
Like her valid criticisms of Trump, these points about Clinton’s record are relevant to judging whether she has the judgment and temperament to be commander-in-chief. Also, her record at State was spotty at best and virtually devoid of major achievements. Given the chance to make a profound difference in crafting America’s role in the world, she mostly sat on the sidelines and let opportunity pass by. Even a cursory look at all that the current secretary of state, John Kerry, has achieved makes one wonder whether Hillary Clinton has what it takes. As president of the United States, she will be preferable to Donald Trump as steward of US foreign policy and national security. But that is a low standard. As of now, it’s not clear that either prospective nominee has passed the commander-in-chief test.