Trump vs. Clinton Commander-In-Chief Forum: A Missed Opportunity

Professor Andrew Bacevich of Boston University says the forum could have clarified positions on a number of defining national security issues including the subject of ‘modernizing’ the US nuclear arsenal

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

Wednesday evening, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump participated in “Commander-in-Chief Forum”, aired by NBC, where they discussed national security policies and veterans affairs. They both emphasized their intention to defeat the Islamic State and the need to take better care of our veterans. Let’s have a look at what each of them had to say.

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HILLARY CLINTON, U.S. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We have to defeat ISIS. That is my highest counterterrorism goal. We are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again, and we’re not putting ground troops into Syria. We’re going to defeat ISIS without committing American ground troops.

DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I may love what the generals come back with. I will convene–.

MATT LAUER, NBC: But you have your own plan.

TRUMP: I have a plan, but I want to be–I want to–. Look, I have a very substantial chance of winning. Make America great again. We’re going to make America great again.

LAUER: Let me read some of the things you said. “I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me.” Was that the truth?

TRUMP: Well, the generals under Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have not been successful. ISIS–.

LAUER: Do you know more about ISIS than they do?

TRUMP: I think under the leadership of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton the generals have been reduced to rubble.

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PERIES: Joining us now to analyze Clinton’s and Trump’s national security policies and veterans affairs policies is Professor Andrew Bacevich. He is professor emeritus at Boston University and author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.

Professor, thank you so much for joining us today.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Thank you.

PERIES: So, Professor, you were at the forum, so you get firsthand view of the questions and answers and how the veterans that were present responded to the Q&As. How did you receive all of this?

BACEVICH: Well, I thought it was a missed opportunity. There were some useful exchanges on the question of support for veterans, and both Trump and Clinton were clear that supporting veterans would be a priority. But the event was advertised as a “Commander-in-Chief Forum”, and in that regard there was remarkably little discussion of national security policy, and what little there occurred struck me as being superficial. So a lost opportunity in the sense that here was an ideal chance to invite the candidates to respond to some really first-order national security-related questions, but the questions weren’t even asked.

PERIES: Now, there’s been some controversy in terms of the host and the kind of questioning that was pursued. Now, if you had the opportunity, what kind of questions would you be asking, Professor?

BACEVICH: Sure. So I might have said something like this. Secretary Clinton, Mr. Trump, the country has been at war in the greater Middle East for many years now, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, elsewhere. What lessons have you learned from this long military involvement, and how would your administration apply those lessons? I think that that’s one example of the sort of thing that a candidate to be commander in chief ought to have to reflect on.

You know, I think it’s not so much what questions and answers would satisfy listeners or watchers but what sort of questions do potential voters need to begin thinking about. And here’s an example of that. With remarkably little fanfare, the Obama administration has committed the United States to a program that will modernize the entire American nuclear strike force. We’re going to build new warheads, new bombers, new missile-launching submarines, new land-based missiles. This program is expected to take 30 years years to complete, and its estimated cost is upwards of $1 trillion. Now, that’s a program, it seems to me, that we need to know more about, and we ought to know where the candidates stand on this $1 trillion program. Do they see it as necessary? Do they support it? And how does spending $1 trillion to modernize our nuclear arsenal square with statements made by presidents of both parties–to include Barack Obama–that the United States seeks to create a nuclear weapons-free world? So, Secretary Clinton, Mr. Trump, where do you stand on spending $1 trillion to modernize our nuclear arsenal? That’s the sort question that, once again, might have been asked in this forum but simply wasn’t, because neither the moderator nor the veterans audience thought to pose the question.

PERIES: And you were saying the audience was largely veterans who were obviously there to hear specifically from their commander in chief. And one thing that concerns the entire country is how we treat our veterans once they’re home–so much unemployment, lack of housing, poor medical treatment. You know, we’re clearly not taking care of them well enough when we look at the statistics. Which of the two candidates, in your opinion, addressed that question?

BACEVICH: Well, they both did, and they were both equally emphatic that the United States needs to do a better job in taking care of vets.

Where they parted company was in the matter of methods. And Hillary Clinton came across as somebody who, at least as I understood her, insists that the VA can be made to work more efficiently and will be made to work more efficiently. Of course, the VA is notorious for being an especially bureaucratic bureaucracy that does not respond very well. I think she thinks she can fix that.

For his part, Donald Trump made the point that where the VA falls short, where it fails, he wants veterans to be able to go to private health care providers, to go to their local doctor and have the doctor prescribe whatever is necessary, and then in effect have the bill passed to the VA to reimburse the doctor.

PERIES: Now, do you think that’s an adequate response?

BACEVICH: I don’t know. I mean, I can’t say that I have any particular expertise in veterans’ issues. It seems to me that there’s plenty of good will to go around. I don’t know that anybody even running for dog catcher is going to question the need to prioritize veterans’ care.

I think the problem is that virtually everybody, not simply the VA, was caught by surprise by the demand for services, particularly medical services, by this new generation of veterans. Statistically, the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are far more likely to seek help for their problems, whether physical, psychological, or otherwise, far more likely than was the case with earlier generations of veterans, whether we’re talking Vietnam, Korea, or World War II. So the VA has been playing catch-up ball for the last decade and a half. Certainly the amount of money appropriated for veteran support has escalated substantially–if I’m not mistaken, it’s roughly tripled over the course of the past decade. So they need to find out the way to spend the money effectively. And I don’t know, really, enough about the specifics to comment on how well that’s going.

PERIES: You’ve obviously written books on America’s role in the Middle East. And one of the issues that came up last night was the role of the generals. Now, at one point Trump had in the past said that he knows more about what’s going on in the Middle East than the generals, and then he was more carefully crafting his words yesterday in order to avoid diminishing the role of the generals here. But if you had to deal with these two candidates and if you were a general dealing with the Middle East, who would be the better candidate in order to address our role in the Middle East?

BACEVICH: I think that the role the generals have come to play in this campaign is somewhat troubling. Both Trump and Clinton are lining up a roster of generals to support their candidacy. So we have–these are retired generals, of course. But we have retired generals who are in essence partisans of the Republican candidate. We have retired generals and admirals who are partisan supporters of the Democratic candidate. And I, for one, find that alone troubling. It suggests that the officer corps itself is becoming politicized. And we don’t want to have a politicized officer corps. We want to have an officer corps that regardless of which candidate prevails, members of the officer corps, members of the military more generally, will provide unquestioning obedience to what the commander in chief requires. Trump castigated Obama’s generals as rubbish. No one quite knows what that term means in this context.

But what I would say is that both candidates–it would be useful if both candidates would offer their reflections on the quality of American generalship in the wars in which we’ve been involved over the past couple of decades. My own sense is that the quality has been indifferent, not bad, but also not all that good. And it would be nice to hear a commander in chief–prospective commander in chief–reflect on what he or she might do once in office in order to improve the quality of American generalship, so that going forward we might be more successful than we have been in the wars that we find ourselves involved in.

PERIES: Alright. Professor Bacevich, I thank you so much for joining us today, and we look forward to having you back very soon.

BACEVICH: Thanks very much.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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