Clinton and Trump: Commanders-in-Half
Speaking at the Union League of Philadelphia on Wednesday, Donald Trump outlined his plan to rebuild America’s military, eliminating the defense budget cuts of the Obama years and expanding the size of the force. His recommendations were met with reserved praise from a conservative national security community often critical of his policies. The headline items were his call to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps, boost the Air Force fighter inventory, and vastly expand the Navy fleet. But the speech, upon closer analysis, leaves one to ask: what’s the desired build-up actually for? In light of previous speeches and even Wednesday’s, Trump’s defense plans appear out of sync with his preferred “grand” strategy. Indeed, the mismatch between policy and resources—the ends and the means of foreign and defense policy—is quite striking.
But this appears no less true for Hillary Clinton. While her years in the Senate and her tenure as secretary of state suggest a desired return to a more activist, liberal internationalist posture, her proposed policy agenda if elected president will likely preclude the kind of resource investments necessary to live up to that image. Where Trump would only have the means, Clinton only understands the ends.
The strategic-void at the center of Trump’s policies can be seen in the justification he offered on Wednesday. In his speech, he promised to build a 350 ship Navy, citing the 2014 bipartisan National Defense Panel’s report as the source for that figure, but the NDP, as it was known, grounded its proposals in a strategy of “deep global engagement and leadership.” By contrast, Trump called for an “America first” policy, an approach he most clearly explicated this spring and whose underlying impulse was retrenchment.
Even in Philadelphia, outside of his statement that he would come up with a plan to defeat ISIS if elected, Trump only made the most perfunctory of remarks when it came to meeting the threats posed by Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. If anything, in attacking Clinton’s record, his tone was more aligned with President Obama’s own doctrinal slogan for managing America’s global interests—“Don’t do stupid shit." And it is upon that shaky foundation that he wants a major investment in the military.
Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric and proposed policies in this campaign, meanwhile, are largely the flip side of the coin from Trump. She has separated herself from her would-be predecessor in the Oval Office, President Obama, calling for the US to expand both financial and military aid for Ukraine and to establish a no-fly zone in Syria. But she distinguished herself most in her recent speech at the American Legion’s annual conference, declaring that “America must lead” and is, echoing her husband’s secretary of state, “the indispensable nation.” Indeed the US ought to lead “with our values in pursuance of our interests, in protection of our security. At our best the United States is the global force for freedom, justice and human dignity.” And challenging her former boss in a separate interview, she pointedly stated, “Great nations need organizing principles — and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
While Donald Trump cited the National Defense Panel, Clinton sounded as if she had studied it.
However, though she sounds like a traditional internationalist, it is unlikely that Clinton would be able to live up to the image. Whether as an appeal to the left-most wing of her party or to her own innate progressive instincts, she has crafted a domestic policy platform that would greatly expand the federal budget—doing nothing to ease the growing fiscal crisis—and prevent her, in turn, from finding the funds necessary for recapitalizing the military, fixing its growing readiness problems, or keeping operational tempo at rate consonant with her own strategic plans.
A budgetary assessment of the Clinton campaign proposals found that her goal of reversing the automatic defense and non-defense cuts (“sequestration”) would see the national debt climb from 75% today to about 90% over the next decade. To avoid that spike, her administration would have to push for substantial new taxes or make spending cuts elsewhere. But the catch is, additional taxes, combined with the current regulatory regime, will likely slow the economy and reduce the very revenues expected from tax increases. And by appearing to rule out significant changes to the Social Security system and other entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, Clinton has foreclosed the other path to curbing the crunch on government monies.
In short, neither of the major presidential candidates offers the right combination of ends and means when it comes to foreign policy and national security. They each talk the talk—Donald Trump on a military buildup and Clinton on American leadership. Mirror images of each other, they appear to be the two halves of a proper commander-in-chief.