Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton participated in a public forum with veterans on Wednesday night, describing how they’d help the armed forces and how they’d defeat Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). They shared the same stage, in back to back interviews with NBC’s Matt Lauer, where they took questions from veterans in the audience.
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), a veterans advocacy group, proposed the town-hall style discourse, called the Commander-in-Chief forum. Clinton went first, then Trump.
Trump leads Clinton by a margin of two to one among members of the military likely to vote, according to a Military Times poll. A separate NBC poll finds Trump leading by a similar margin. Members of the military also think Trump would be a better leader overall.
Although they diverged on the methods and allies they’d bring to war in the middle east, both laid out foreign policy proposals that involve more war there. Trump’s aims include defeating ISIS, but they also plainly call for the U.S. to seize Iraq’s oil. Clinton’s motivations for dropping bombs on Iraqis come down to preserving American security by eliminating ISIS.
Clinton has said that her vote in favor for the Iraq War was a mistake Lauer pressed her on that:
LAUER: I asked before for people to raise their hand if you served in Iraq. Can you do it again? How do you think these people feel when the person running to be their commander-in-chief says her vote to go to war in Iraq was a mistake?
CLINTON: Look, I think that the decision to go to war in Iraq was a mistake. And I have said that my voting to give President Bush that authority was, from my perspective, my mistake. I also believe that it is imperative that we learn from the mistakes, like after- action reports are supposed to do, and so we must learn what led us down that path so that it never happens again.
But it appears both Clinton and Trump, and their opposing phalanxes of Pentagon brass, are bent on going to war again, with different allies and perhaps in different places. And the mistakes that lead to the United States into Vietnam are looming over Trump and Clinton’s plans for further war.
Trump and Clinton both proposed a melange of strategies that ended in the United States failure to stop North Vietnam from taking over South Vietnam. On Wednesday, both candidates appeared to consciously imitate the doomed methods that lead to defeat there for the United States. It was like Lauer, Trump and Clinton got out some kind of Ouijia board and asked LBJ and Tricky Dick what they should do about America’s perennial foreign policy crisis.
Trump has a “secret plan” he can’t reveal, just like Richard Nixon (hint: It’s more bombing in more countries, like Laos and Cambodia). Lauer asked if he wanted to remain unpredictable. Trump agreed.
“Absolutely. The word is unpredictable,” Trump said.
Channeling both Presidents Nixon, a Republican and Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat, Clinton feels that airstrikes and the Iraqi-ization of the war will defeat ISIS, keeping American troops out of harm’s way.
Clinton feels that special forces can do the trick. Special forces spent years in Vietnam before Johnson escalated the war and the draft. That didn’t work, and the U.S. became mired even deeper in the mud and blood of counterinsurgency. Over the last 13 years, a similar pattern has emerged.
I don’t know what the answer to civil war in Iraq is, but neither do Trump or Clinton, other than further war and, for Trump, another grab for Iraq’s oil.
But the candidates have more in common than that. The NBC forum comes as Clinton and Trump are neck and neck in recent national polls, and also in a dead heat in Florida. Clinton on Thursday at a press conference admitted she expected it would be a close race.
Both candidates the night before brought with them endorsements from dozens of retired generals and admirals, who dived into politics this year with a vengeance against the administration, which they accused of leaving a “hollowed out” military. Trump made a point of condemning the administration’s military leadership, and praising his own bellicose cadre.
They’ve “done a lot of losing,” Trump said of Obama’s foreign policy establishment.
His 88 generals said they felt the Obama administration had emboldened America’s enemies.
“For this reason, we support Donald Trump and his commitment to rebuild our military, to secure our borders, to defeat our Islamic supremacist adversaries and restore law and order domestically. We urge our fellow Americans to do the same,” they wrote in an open letter. Clinton has 95 generals on her side.
During the forum, neither candidate discussed diplomatic means to ending civil violence in Syria, Iraq and Libya, where Clinton denied the existence of an ongoing war between a UN-backed government and ISIS. Trump was the only candidate who mentioned diplomacy, but in the form of brokering an alliance between Washington and Moscow to take down Raqqa. Clinton wants to do the same with NATO allies, “Arabs, Kurds and enablers,” along with the Iraqi army.
With the aid of Russia, Trump appears to be plotting some kind of kleptocratic reconquista of Iraq, where he said the U.S. should have “taken the oil” before leaving, even though we shouldn’t have been there in the first place. He cast the tragedy of Iraq not as one that ended in the deaths of thousands, but as one that gained the U.S. nothing. He also promoted an idea popular among some on the right regarding the Vietnam war. If only the United States had been able to fight longer, or even use nuclear weapons, it would have defeated its enemy in the dense jungles of Vietnam. In a similar fashion, postmodern devotees of creative destruction say Obama has capitulated to the Islamic Radical enemy, and advertised when we were planning to leave.
“He said when we go out — and he took everybody out [of Iraq],” Trump said. “‘And really, ISIS was formed. This was a terrible decision. And frankly, we never even got a shot,” he said, leaving the implication that he would get America another shot, if elected president.
But a shot at what? Through the campaign, Trump has succeeded by focusing on concrete accomplishments. Like proposing to build a giant wall that will be the best. Clinton focuses on abstracts and speaks in euphemisms for killing.
Trump doesn’t, and military folks I’ve spoken to say it helps him connect with soldiers raised in an “us against them” mentality. Clinton offers a more nuanced view of “us against them,” but it lacks an answer to a crucial question about any war: What do we get out of it?
Black gold, Texas tea, is what Trump wants out of American efforts in Iraq. In doing so, he even said that there “was no victor” in Iraq, at least so far.
LAUER: How were we going to take the oil? How were we going to do that?
TRUMP: Just we would leave a certain group behind and you would take various sections where they have the oil. They have — people don’t know this about Iraq, but they have among the largest oil reserves in the world, in the entire world. And we’re the only ones, we go in, we spend $3 trillion, we lose thousands and thousands of lives, and then, Matt, what happens is, we get nothing. You know, it used to be to the victor belong the spoils. Now, there was no victor there, believe me. There was no victor. But I always said: Take the oil. One of the benefits we would have had if we took the oil is ISIS would not have been able to take oil and use that oil…
Clinton on Thursday at a press conference in New York refuted Trump’s hot take on the oil issue. She claims oil had nothing to do with the American military’s decision to go to Iraq. Yet obviously it did because duh.
“And when asked how he would stop the spread of global terrorism, Trump’s answer was simply ‘take the oil.’ The United States of America does not invade other countries to plunder and pillage. We don’t send our brave men and women around the world to steal oil. And that’s not even getting into the absurdity of what it would involve: massive infrastructure, large numbers of troops, many years on the ground. Of course, Trump hasn’t thought through any of that,” she said.
Obviously, Clinton has. Also she’s describing the course of the Iraq war, which involved protecting, often rebuilding Iraq’s oil infrastructure after insurgent attacks; quartering hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the country for many years, on the ground.
“Of course it’s about oil; we can’t really deny that,” said Gen. John Abizaid in 2007. Abizaid was head of US Central Command during some of the most violent periods of the war. He is quoted in a CNN piece from 2013 by Antonia Juhasz that examines the creative ways American oil companies pushed for and profited from the conflict.
“I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil,” said former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, in his memoirs, Juhasz writes.
In denying the fundamental colonial rapaciousness of the Iraq war, Clinton is playing the role of Ego in American foreign policy, rationalizing unethical decisions, owning up to some questionable decisions (Iraq) but not others (Libya). Meanwhile, Trump is the remorseless Id, the base impulse of empire to seize land and resources through the promise of deadly force. The Id knows colonialism isn’t about bringing the blessings of civilization to conquered, it’s about exploiting them and their resources. Trump seems to understand that in a way Clinton doesn’t, or at least won’t admit.
Despite those differences, Trump and Clinton think more war is the answer to ISIS. Clinton said she wants to target ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. Instead of oil, Clinton wants to pursue the war in the name of U.S. security, but never mentions what that might mean for the Iraqis. History shows American foreign policy makers can’t get enough of plans that boost security or access to oil. The problem is that it’s hard to quantify security, but oil comes by the barrel.
During the press conference Thursday, Clinton said she would escalate the war, although she uses the term “intensify.” Security is the goal, but security is an abstraction. At the very least, whatever we’re doing in Iraq still, Clinton assures that Americans won’t be dying on the ground. Arabs and Kurds will be doing that, just as the South Vietnamese army was supposed to have in Americans’ stead.
“I support the air campaign. I support special forces. I support enablers. I support surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance. I will absolutely be prepared to do whatever is necessary to support the Arab and Kurdish fighters on the ground to take out as much of the infrastructure of ISIS from the air; to go after Baghdadi, as I said today, with a very focused commitment to taking him off the battlefield. I think the approach I’ve outlined intensifies what we are doing, but also recognizes that there is no, in my opinion, path forward to ground troops that would be in our interests,” she said.
What happens in Baghdad or Washington D.C. after January 20, 2017 remains to be seen. Maybe the policies that failed fifty years ago will succeed this time. More war of some kind is a safe bet. It’s a kind of war we’ve seen before.