Donald Trump should have smiled more in his first debate against Hillary Clinton. He still wouldn’t have won, but he wouldn’t have looked so sad losing.
But on Monday smiling seemed impossible for the Donald, as he met his kryptonite: a small, silent audience instructed not to react to the debate. Trump’s populist politics requires a crowd to act as an accomplice, thousands of eager supporters to help him get away with saying anything. On Monday night at the Hofstra University debate stage, he didn’t have that, and he couldn’t seem to get away with anything. Lacking the sound and fury of a crowd to feed off of, he looked confused and, for the first time, rather low-energy. He didn’t smile once that I could see. He looked like someone arguing with a hotel concierge.
His pained face suggested he would rather be somewhere else. His clammy regular-sized fingers fumbled with his microphone controls. The next morning he claimed the contraption was malfunctioning, which is code for “sabotage.”
“Anyone who complains about the microphone is not having a good night,” Clinton quipped on her campaign plane. Whether her performance on Monday night will translate to rising poll numbers remains to be seen, but it was a piece of good news for her campaign, which has watched Trump’s chances of winning increase. Nevertheless, the debate revealed how both Clinton and Trump lack a long-term strategy for Iraq. And the word peace only came up twice, once said by Clinton and once by the moderator, NBC’s Lester Holt.
For most of the debate, Clinton made a clear case for why she is not Donald Trump, notorious reality show star. Clinton, a lawyer by trade, seemed to find the orderly debate setting more comfortable than Trump did. The night’s tame audience and timed rebuttals came natural to her. But Trump seemed lost without his seething crowd to give him approval, to ask him to “build the wall,” and, implicitly, “lock her [Clinton] up.” Outside of biting retorts by Clinton, there wasn’t much more to see on Monday. If you are reading this article to get an idea of what the debaters said about America’s role in the middle east, then you will find a thin, cold gruel.
Israel/Palestine wasn’t mentioned once, or asked about by Holt, though Trump said that Benjamin Netanyahu was “not a happy camper” in the wake of the Iran deal. Both candidates offered bullshit answers voters have heard before, just this time standing on the same stage. Neither candidate offered plans for the middle east that included anything but more war and neo-colonial dystopia.
Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer summed it up succinctly in his piece “Fact Checking Trump and Clinton’s At Times Preposterous Claims on Security, Foreign Policy.”
One of the main topics of Monday night’s presidential debate was “securing America.” Neither candidate had anything coming close to serious policy prescriptions for how to do this. Donald Trump covered his lack of knowledge on the subject with bluster and waffle. Hillary Clinton. who is experienced on these matters, presented highly selective and elegantly inaccurate narratives because she knows the voters don’t want to hear that there are no easy solutions.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, aka ISIS, was the main focus of the candidates’ foreign policy volleys. Clinton said squeezing ISIS with America’s Arab and Kurdish allies would continue under her administration. Also, finding and killing ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi would be a top priority for her, just like the execution of Osama bin Laden. But killing bin Laden did little to stop Al Qaeda’s operations in Syria and Yemen, and certainly didn’t do anything to discourage the rise of ISIS, whose forebears were Al Qaeda’s contingent in Iraq.
Nobody in Washington, especially Clinton, can bring themselves to admit that the war in Iraq was lost, and that its goals of establishing a flourishing democratic state failed. But that’s the 500 pound iguana in the middle of the discussion over America’s role in the middle east. What were we doing there in the first place?
Compared to Clinton, Trump has a more concrete answer for that: We should have taken their stuff. Even though the war was wrong, we should have at least taken the oil.
He argued the U.S. should have maintained a force of 10,000 soldiers on the ground in Iraq to make sure the United States could “take the oil” and prevent the rise of ISIS, which has funded itself with oil revenue.
“Secretary Clinton is talking about taking out ISIS. ‘We will take out ISIS.’ Well, President Obama and Secretary Clinton created a vacuum the way they got out of Iraq, because they got out – what, they shouldn’t have been in, but once they got in, the way they got out was a disaster. And ISIS was formed. So she talks about taking them out. She’s been doing it a long time. She’s been trying to take them out for a long time. But they wouldn’t have even been formed if they left some troops behind, like 10,000 or maybe something more than that. And then you wouldn’t have had them,” he said.
Clinton, in her own more subtle way, agreed, saying that further war was necessary, but didn’t go into much detail. Neither candidate presented a formula for disentangling the United States from the violence in Iraq, much less end the violence there..
Clinton accused Trump of not having a plan at all.
“He says it’s a secret plan, but the only secret is that he has no plan,” Clinton said.
The real secret is that neither Clinton nor Trump have a long-term plan for Iraq or the middle east that doesn’t involve war. Clinton wants to destroy ISIS, but doesn’t offer any reason other than ISIS must be destroyed. Israel/Palestine, although it helps drive the religiously motivated violence in the region, doesn’t even register for either candidate. Dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambition stands in for doing anything to end the perpetual conflict between Palestinians and Israelis and anybody else who looks at them cross eyed. Trump takes a more ruthless, but also more intuitive view, on Iraq policy, and it also involves more war, but instead of missionaries for democracy, American soldiers are wildcat oil prospectors.
A knowledgeable source, a former Army officer, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that most of his colleagues don’t want to vote for either Trump or Clinton, because they feel both are likely to lead to U.S. back into war. The ones who are loyal to one candidate or the other are gung-ho for getting another crack at Iraq. Big league, even.
Or, as one officer put it of Trump’s first actions in office: “You know what he’s going to do? He’s going to put warriors back in the game,” said Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, McClatchy reported.
Trump, for his part, has at least 88 retired generals and admirals on his side, he announced earlier this month. Another 95 have pledged allegiance to Clinton. Holt, however, didn’t ask about this politicization of the military brass and what it meant for civilian control of the military, a part of the American experiment’s lower, lizard brain, like birthright citizenship or right to a trial by jury.
Because those retired generals are speaking out on behalf of those still serving, according to one expert. “There is ongoing contact between present members of the high command and retired members,” Yale University consitutional law professor Bruce Ackerman told McClatchy. “They stay silent while the retired members speak out. This is a fundamental challenge to the founding principles of the republic.”
The former Army officer I spoke to said, “I’ve met crazy officers in the military who believe all sorts of conspiracy theories, say they would fight for the south if a new civil war happened, think the earth is 6000 years old, and believe that if only they could make unilateral decisions to wage their own jihad against Islam they could win the war single handedly.
Speaking of political games, I watched the debate in a packed D.C. bar, Nellie’s. It was the closest thing I’ve attended to an actual Clinton rally, with many attendees true believers. Some of their careers rely on the continuation of the ancien regime in the nation’s capital. They clapped and cheered and ooed and aaahed at every jab and counter jab. But Washington D.C. is inconsequential in this election, with only three electoral votes virtually guaranteed to go to the Democratic candidate.
But what about an important place in this election, like Akron, Ohio? Let’s ask Akron native Charlie, 31, a museum employee who is reluctantly voting for Clinton. He believes Ohio will go to Trump.
“I found it funny that Clinton, someone who openly supported and voted for the Iraq war, thought it was a good idea to tangle with Trump over his support of it. I heard no roadmap to peace or withdrawal. I found it profoundly disturbing that the actual neo-fascist was the one speaking against the wastefulness of our decade and a half of elective wars. But unfortunately Clinton won the foreign policy round by just not being a blustering boob. Guess that’s the bar,” he said.
Charlie believes that Trump’s rhetoric will resonate in Ohio, for the most depressing reasons.
“It will, of course. It doesn’t matter that it’s ridiculous. It will resonate with pro-war folks who hate Muslims and are also economically strained. Hurting Muslims and taking their stuff is a two-fer for them,” he added.
Iraq doesn’t move the needle for voters like kitchen-table issues (e.g. the creditors’ repossession of your living room couch) like international trade, a foreign policy question. That’s important to people in places like Akron hit hard by the flight of manufacturing jobs. Trump repeated the word “Ohio” three times, in reference to trade, and Charlie thinks that will win the key battleground state for Trump.
But that wasn’t the worst part, Charlie said: “The most upsetting part was the economy round though. Clinton insisting NAFTA was good and the poors are delusional is not just terrible politics but factually incorrect.” Then noting that the rubber industry died in the seventies well before NAFTA, he said, “It doesn’t matter if a single job was actually in fact lost to NAFTA here. But that is the perception. And that’s what counts.”