How Clinton and Trump Differ on National Security

By Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

The Defense Department under a President Hillary Clinton will for the most part continue in the direction it’s been going under President Barack Obama.

Don’t be surprised to see Defense Secretary Ash Carter remain in that position in a Hillary Clinton administration, much as when after the 2008 election, President-elect Obama got Robert Gates to remain in the job until July 2011. 

Given the new initiatives that Carter has recently begun in Defense Department structure, personnel, research and acquisition, it would make sense to keep his team in place for at least a year, if Clinton agrees with the direction they are going.  The indication is she does, though she has not been specific.

Donald Trump has railed repeatedly about America’s military weakness and has set a goal of building up U.S. forces without saying how much it would cost and where the funds would come from to support it.

Clinton has talked of the U.S. military today as being the greatest in the world but last fall, during a town hall meeting in New Hampshire, said: “I think we are overdue for a very thorough debate in our country about what we need [for defense], and how we are going to pay for it.”

At that time, she called for a high-level commission to examine U.S. defense spending, a suggestion she has yet to expand on. But when she takes it up again during the fall campaign, as I expect she will, she hopefully will include instituting some excise tax or surcharge on personal or corporate taxes as American presidents have done in paying for all wars prior to George W. Bush’s initiating the war on terrorism.

A tax would be a way to get more than the one percent of the public that today has a direct connection with the fighting to support the war beyond watching it on television or standing for a moment at sports and other events.

Such a tax should at least cover the Overseas Contingency Operations account, which primarily pays for fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere. In the Obama fiscal 2017 Defense budget, it totaled some $59 billion. The House cut that figure to $36 billion but limited its authorization to April 30, 2017, requiring the next president to seek supplemental funds for the remainder of the year.   

Clinton’s policy papers call for many of the reforms in military pay and allowances, as well as Defense Department health care for active and retired personnel and their families that are currently being proposed and considered by Congress.

In her June 2 speech, Clinton reflected current policy for dealing with the Islamic State (ISIS) saying, “We need to take out their strongholds in Iraq and Syria by intensifying the air campaign and stepping up our support for Arab and Kurdish forces on the ground. We need to keep pursuing diplomacy to end Syria’s civil war and close Iraq’s sectarian divide because those conflicts are keeping ISIS alive.”

In contrast to Donald Trump’s promise last April that under his secret plan ISIS’s “days are numbered,” Clinton talked of further tightening ties “with our allies…[to] ensure our intelligence services are working hand-in-hand to dismantle the global network that supplies money, arms, propaganda and fighters to the terrorists.”

Trump has repeatedly talked of forcing America’s allies to reimburse Washington for the costs of basing U.S. forces in their countries and assisting in their defense if needed, citing particularly the North Korean threat to Japan and South Korea.

On CNN this past Sunday, Trump said, “We right now defend Japan. Japan pays us a small fraction of the cost, a very small fraction.” When CNN’s Jake Tapper pointed out that Japan pays about 50 percent of the U.S. costs, Trump’s response was, “even if it was 50 percent, why aren’t they paying us 100 percent?”

Trump said it involved “billions and billions of dollars,” and he is right. According to The Wall Street Journal, Japan pays about $4 billion to support U.S. forces in its country, and the fiscal 2017 Pentagon budget has some $5.5 billion designated for the U.S. presence in Japan next year.

Clinton, in her June 2 speech, noted the U.S. benefit from these alliances. When Secretary of State, she worked with Japan and South Korea to respond to threats from North Korea “by creating a missile defense system that stands ready to shoot down a North Korean [nuclear] warhead should its leaders ever be reckless enough to launch one at us,” meaning the U.S.

Clinton pointed out “the technology is ours” but that “key parts of it are located on Japanese ships. All three countries contributed to it. And this month, all three of our militaries will run a joint drill to test it. That’s the power of allies.”

She did not talk about charging those two allies for all the U.S. costs involved recognizing, as apparently Trump does not, that our mutual defense treaties provide security for the American homeland by permitting American forces to be stationed nearer to potential enemies, such as China, Russia, and North Korea. They also help us guarantee sea lanes for U.S. commerce and continue major security and diplomatic roles for the U.S. in the area.

On Libya, Trump has repeatedly attacked Clinton for promoting the Obama administration’s bombing that led to the overthrow of its dictator, Moammar Gadhafi. As recently as May 25, in a speech in Anaheim, California, he described her “horribly bad judgment,” referring to “what she did with Libya, which was a total catastrophe.”

However, this past Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation, John Dickerson had to remind Trump that in February 2011 he, on his own video blog, said that in response to the threat Gadhafi posed to the Libyan people, “We should go in, we should stop this guy, we could go in and do it surgically, stop him from doing it and save these lives.”

When Dickerson pointed out the contradiction that Trump was criticizing Clinton for supporting something he, himself, had suggested, Trump responded, “I was never for a strong intervention. I could have seen surgical, where you take out Gadhafi and his group.”

However, there is more to this.

In his April 27 national security speech, Trump had said, “One day we’re bombing Libya and getting rid of a dictator to foster democracy for civilians, the next day we are watching the same civilians suffer while that country falls apart.”

The fact is that back in February 2011, Trump talked about more than just a surgical strike in Libya to get rid of Gadhafi. He referred to the aftermath, as he saw it.

“We should do on an humanitarian basis immediately go in to Libya, and knock this guy out very quickly, very surgically,” Trump said. Then he added, “And when it is all done, we go to the protestors who end up running the country, they will like us a lot better than if we don’t do it, more importantly we’re going to save lives, and we should then say, by the way, from all of your oil, we want reimbursement.”

That’s the Trump Doctrine: Use our military for good purposes and get paid for it. National security should be run like a business, if not for a profit, at least break even.

Hillary Clinton has not proposed anything like that.

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