Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Robert M. Gates, ex-CIA chief and Secretary of Defense for both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, published a column in the Wall Street Journal last week criticizing both Trump and Hillary for their their lack of “credibility” on foreign policy. This seemingly even-handed critique, however, is in fact an exercise in an apples-and-oranges comparison that ends up as a back-handed endorsement of Hillary.
Gates begins with a well-known survey of the mess Barack Obama’s foreign policies will leave his successor. A surging China threatens the Far East despite the “pivot” to Asia. Vladimir Putin is expanding everywhere on Russia’s western border, and in the Middle East has replaced the U.S. as the number one power broker. Putin also has serially gulled our mediocre Secretary of State John Kerry with “cease fires” that give cover to his aggression, and exposed our president’s gutlessness by buzzing our naval vessels and taunting our military aircraft. North Korea has just tested a nuclear device and intercontinental missiles that can reach as far as Chicago. And ISIS continues to hold ground in Iraq and Syria, and inspire terrorist franchises and attacks in Europe, the U.S., and Africa. And of course, there is the disastrous appeasement of Iran on nukes, along with the mullocracy’s active support for terrorism and serial humiliation of the U.S.
For each crisis, Gates explains, neither Trump nor Hillary offer any specific strategy or response that can even start to repair this dangerous erosion of American prestige and influence. Rather, as Gates says of their announced plans for rolling back ISIS, both candidates propose what “in essence sounds like what President Obama is doing now—with more ideological fervor and some additional starch”.
Yet at this point Gates makes the same mistake (or employs the same rhetorical tactic) of the NeverTrump folks. He does not distinguish between Trump’s campaign rhetoric and Hillary’s long record of failure, only specifically mentioning one example, the intervention in Libya. No word of her active support of the “reset” with Russia that encouraged Putin’s geopolitical adventurism. Nor any mention of her role in the Iranian deal, easily the worst foreign policy mistake since World War II, given the stakes of allowing an apocalyptic cult to possess nuclear weapons.
Nor does he say a word about Clinton’s obvious character flaws––her long record of sacrificing the country’s security and interests to her own political and financial gain, as she did with her unsecured private server and her pay-for-play State Department. Nor does he mention Hillary’s numerous health issues that raise serious questions about whether she will be physically and cognitively able to handle a crisis.
“When it comes to credibility problems, though, Donald Trump is in a league of his own,” Gates asserts. Yet his catalogue of sins refers to campaign rhetoric and personal style, and even then Gates’ take on Trump’s comments is tendentious. For example, Gates criticizes the wall with Mexico proposed by Trump, which would enhance security by making it more difficult for terrorists to infiltrate the U.S. Next comes the old tired charge that Trump’s suggestion we bring back enhanced interrogation techniques advocates “torture.” Waterboarding is not torture under current U.S. statute, as even Eric Holder told Congress in May of 2009. And as ex-CIA director George Tenet detailed in his memoirs, it delivered valuable information that prevented numerous attacks and helped locate bin Laden’s hideout. Gates here is recycling an old progressive smear against George W. Bush. As for Trump’s call for “killing [terrorists’] families,” what does he think Obama’s drone strikes do at times? And is Gates now morally condemning Allied strategic bombing of Germany and Japan, which killed nearly a million civilians?
Then there’s Trump’s offhand comments about Putin’s qualities as a good leader for a “system” Trump said he doesn’t like. We’re supposed to think Trump’s words are more consequential than Hillary’s and Obama’s appeasing deeds that empowered Putin’s aggressive foreign policy? Or more significant than Obama’s pledge to be more “flexible” with Russia after his re-election? And given that the U.S. has dealt with much more murderous leaders like Mao and Khrushchev, does Gates and other NeverTrumpers think future dealings with Putin will be easier or harder if Trump preens morally about Putin’s evil like the pundits and retired government officials free of accountability do? More likely, hard-nosed calculations of national interest on both sides will be more important than American presidential campaign rhetoric whether positive or negative.
Then there’s the dudgeon over Trump’s comments about NATO, which were consistent with decades of complaints about the Europeans’ refusal to pay for their own defense, and the expense of keeping American troops in Europe. Democrat Utah senator Mike Mansfield criticized European scanty defense spending way back in 1970. Nor do I recall Gates complaining as vociferously when Obama called the Europeans “free riders” in the Atlantic interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. As for “keeping its treaty commitments” to our NATO allies, Gates should read Article Five of the NATO Treaty, the language of which creates a huge loophole for any member state to opt out of actual fighting. Does he really think Germany, France, or even the U.S. will go to war with Russia if it invades Estonia? Putin doesn’t need Trump’s rhetoric to conclude that the U.S. and Europe are in an appeasing mood these days.
The list goes on. Trump’s suggestion that Japan and South Korea develop nuclear weapons is “highly destabilizing,” according to Gates. The point, however, is not the nukes, it’s the kind of government that has them. We don’t stay awake at night worrying about Israel, France, India, or England abusing their nuclear weapons because they are liberal democracies ruled by law and subject to citizen accountability––unlike theocratic Iran, which is likely to acquire nuclear weapons due to Hillary and Obama’s bad deal, and is much more likely to use them. Then there’s Trump’s threats to “purge” generals–– “an unprecedented and unconscionable threat,” Gates claims, as though no president ever fired a general. Ask George B. McClellan or Douglas MacArthur.
The rest of Gates’ indictment of Trump is merely a string of ad hominem attacks of a man Gates does not know personally. For example, Trump “disdains expertise and experience while touting his own”––sort of like the thin-skinned Barack Obama who Gates worked for and who is notorious for not listening to his advisors. Gates himself said Obama “thinks he’s the smartest person in the room.” As for Trump being “willfully ignorant about the rest of the world,” how about Obama’s ignorance of geopolitics evident in his snarky response to Mitt Romney’s prescient warnings about Russia in the 2012 presidential debate? Or his referring to the “Austrian” language and calling the Falkland Islands the Maldives?
But according to Gates, Trump is uniquely “stubbornly uninformed” and “temperamentally unsuited” to be Commander-in-Chief. These are standard Democrat talking-points based solely on Trump’s unconventional rhetorical style, not his factual errors of the sort regularly made by Obama. But what really gives Gates away is his claim that Hillary “has time before the election to address forthrightly her trustworthiness, to reassure people about her judgment, to demonstrate her willingness to stake out one or more positions on national security at odds with her party’s conventional wisdom.” Trump, on the other hand, is “beyond repair,” incapable of change or growth.
So based not on personal knowledge of Trump, but rather on perceptions of his campaign rhetoric and personality alone, Gates asserts that Trump cannot be redeemed. But this assumption that rhetoric necessarily leads to deeds is unfounded. George W. Bush campaigned against foreign policy as “social work,” and then embarked on Wilsonian democracy promotion in Iraq and Afghanistan. Certainly Obama’s soaring rhetoric of reconciliation and national unity never became reality. Instead he governed just as he had served as a Senator: as a deeply partisan progressive with no interest in bipartisan comity or in working to benefit the country as a whole. Once in office, there’s chance that Trump’s deeds will be different from his rhetoric.
But Gates thinks Hillary can be redeemed, despite her long record of failure as Secretary of State, her amply documented character flaws that endangered national security by running classified documents through her home-brew server, and her increasingly obvious health issues that question her ability to quickly make life-and-death decisions. Nor is there anything other than mere hope to suggest she will transform into an interventionist hawk on foreign policy, the fantasy of many a NeverTrump neocon. That dream is unlikely to be fulfilled. As Robert Kaufmann wrote recently,
A vote for Hillary Clinton is therefore a vote for Mr. Obama’s dangerous doctrine, which fears American power more than it fears our enemies. As secretary of state, Mrs. Clinton contributed enormously to lowering the barriers to aggression everywhere—with much worse to come unless we reverse course.
Gates’ “pox on both your houses” rhetoric in the end leaves the door open to voting for Hillary, based solely on taking seriously campaign words while ignoring a 25-year-long record of dangerous deeds.