Questions for The Next Commander in Chief

Questions for The Next Commander in Chief

What We Need to Hear from the 2016 Presidential Candidates at Tonight’s Commander-in-Chief Forum

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Amidst the all the name-calling, memes, hashtag wars – and, let’s face it – flat out conspiracy theories, it’s easy to forget that Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton will assume the role of Commander-in-Chief of the United States Military upon taking office on January 20, 2017. And with that enormous responsibility, one of these candidates will also inherit a host of national security challenges that are not only numerous but incredibly disparate in nature.

Tonight, almost fifteen years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton will have the opportunity to address active members of the military, veterans and the American public at large about their plans to keep our country, its citizens and our allies safe at NBC’s Commander-in-Chief Forum in New York City.

Here’s a look at just a few of the issues each candidate should be expected to address, what they might say and what the American public deserves to hear:

1.     Syria, Iraq, Libya and the Fight Against ISIL

After five years, hundreds of thousands of lives lost, and even more displaced, the greatest humanitarian crisis of the 21st century not only has no end in sight but gets more complicated by the day. Just last week, Turkey, a NATO country that had thus far done its best to stay out of the direct action, rolled dozens of tanks into Syria in an effort to secure its southern border with the failing state. The result? Various factions of U.S.-backed rebel groups are now fighting each other. What is the U.S. strategy in Syria, if there is one at all?

Mrs. Clinton has advocated for what would be a precarious no-fly-zone over Syria (to say the least), while Mr. Trump has proposed intensifying the current air campaign to exponential proportions. But the point remains: what happens when ISIL’s final bastions in Mosul and Raqqa fall? Americans deserve to hear detailed plans from both candidates about their plans for America’s role in the region.

2.    Expeditionary Terrorism

While the maelstrom on the ground in Iraq and Syria intensifies and the so-called caliphate continues to shrink geographically, ISIL has shown no sign of backing off its plans to export its brand of terrorism to Western countries, whether through external operations arms or its advanced, social media-driven propaganda arm.

Mr. Trump has been adamant about enacting a blanket ban on all Muslims entering the United States to prevent ISIL-inspired violence from reaching American soil, though the details remain decidedly murky. Mrs. Clinton, meanwhile, advocates for a plan that entails “working with our allies to dismantle global terror networks, and hardening our defenses at home.”

While our allies in Europe have borne the brunt of ISIL’s violence, Americans need more clarification from both candidates about how they intend to keep the homeland safe.

3.    Russian Encroachment

Somewhat obscured by the catastrophe unfolding in Syria and Iraq has been Vladimir Putin’s slow but steady push to regain influence in the Baltic, Arctic, and Eastern Europe, beginning with the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2006 and the “annexation” of Crimea in 2014. The Russian strongman has even gone on the record about his ambitions to restore Russia to a stature not seen since the Soviet Union, which quite clearly involves the expansion of its territory, especially at places like the Ukrainian border, where large amounts of Russian troops and armor continue to mass.

At a time when one would think that a strong, unified NATO should be the primary means of deterring this type of Russian aggression, Mr. Trump has suggested that the U.S. role in the nearly 70-year-old alliance should be reduced, if not withdrawn altogether. If so, what is Mr. Trump’s plan to check Mr. Putin’s influence in democratic states like Ukraine, Belarus, and Latvia, U.S. allies that have relied on U.S. military support since the fall of the Iron Curtain?

Mrs. Clinton, meanwhile, has pledged to “stand up to Vladimir Putin.” But what exactly does that mean? More economic sanctions? A buildup of American military troops and materiel along Russia’s western border? Again, American voters should demand more details from both candidates.

4.    Trouble in East Asia

Across the world, American foes China and North Korea continue to threaten the interests of the United States and our allies in the region. Despite the Obama administration’s diplomatic pivot to Asia, both countries continue to instigate conflict and in some cases harass American military assets. China, in its efforts to retain its status as regional hegemon, has vastly improved its naval capabilities by developing advanced anti-ship missiles and launching its home-built first aircraft carrier. Even more boldly, the country has embarked on an island building campaign in the South China Sea to assert its control over what has almost universally been recognized as international waters.

Further north, North Korea continues its quest for functional nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles with which to deliver them. Just this week, the hermit nation launched three ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan while world leaders convened at the G20 summit in China.

At some point soon, the United States must develop a plan to check the aggressive posture of both these nations, and, given recent events, both candidates would be wise to share their thoughts on the matter at tonight’s forum.

5.    Cyber Insecurity

Recent events have made crystal clear that cyberspace deserves a place of its own alongside the traditional military domains of sea, air, land and space warfare. China and its army of cyberwarriors continue to pilfer American trade secrets and intellectual property from U.S. companies and are widely suspected to be the culprits behind the massive exfiltration of government data from the Office of Personnel Management in 2014.

Meanwhile, it seems increasingly clear that Russia is conducting a covert information warfare campaign on American political institutions to sow seeds of doubt in the American electoral process, and indeed, American democracy as a whole, in the months leading up to Election Day.

Furthermore, all of this activity is taking place with the threat of cyber-initiated physical attacks on American critical infrastructure looming in the background.

So, what are the candidates’ plans to harden our cyber defenses and deter our enemies from additional attacks? Do the candidates have sufficient understanding of the debate around encryption to make the types of decisions necessary to enable law enforcement and protect American companies and citizens alike? Is either candidate up to the task of dealing with such an abstract threat? The above are important questions that have not been answered decisively by either candidate.

These and many other issues – such as the prospect of a nuclear Iran, the resurgence of the Taliban and other extremist groups in Afghanistan and ongoing destabilization in South America – all deserve to be addressed before Americans head to the polls on November 9th.

We live in a dangerous, complex world of diverse threats and many moving parts. Despite the need for more details, it’s clear that both candidates have contrasting views on the United States’ role in the world. Those views need to be clarified to the American public with concrete specifics, and this evening’s forum would be a good place to start.

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