One of the main topics of Monday night's presidential debate was "securing America." Neither candidate had anything coming close to serious policy prescriptions for how to do this. Donald Trump covered his lack of knowledge on the subject with bluster and waffle. Hillary Clinton, who is experienced on these matters, presented highly selective and elegantly inaccurate narratives because she knows the voters don't want to hear that there are no easy solutions.
After the two sparring partners finally finished scoring points over the comparative merits of tax-evading heirs and small-time drapery manufacturers and the debate entered the realms of national security and foreign policy, Clinton let rip with Trump's de-facto encouragement of Russian hackers trying to subvert the American electoral process. This was one of her bravest moments of the evening, directly accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin of waging cyberwarfare against the U.S. and Trump of being the willing beneficiary. He responded angrily with "Russia, Russia, Russia, no one knows it's Russia." At least on this point Clinton was on much steadier ground, as there is a consensus among intelligence professionals and most private experts that the hackers who obtained the damaging DNC emails that were then published by Wikileaks are indeed linked to Russian intelligence.
Clinton however overstepped her mark when she claimed that America has the most resources in the field of cyber and cannot allow its foreign rivals to break into its networks. This was the kind of boast that you would have expected Trump to make. Clinton however surely knows that while the U.S. does have a more superior high-tech infrastructure, both in the private and government sectors, China has by far more personnel working daily on hacking in to American computers while Russia effectively utilizes its extensive criminal underworld for these purposes. The sheer weight of numbers also counts in cyberwarfare and the U.S. can't realistically hope to prevent itself from being hacked – it has to be better prepared for the results of sabotage to its systems.
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On other security issues as well, neither candidate was entirely truthful. On fighting ISIS, Clinton said that "going after [ISIS leader Abu Bakr al] Baghdadi should be one of our guiding principles." As if she doesn't know that it is already one of the administration's top priorities. She also knows that even if they were to locate and kill him, that would not be the decisive blow that would end the threat of the Islamic State. Then she got bogged down a bit in the details of how the U.S. is allying with "Arab and Kurdish" partners for the next push on the ground against ISIS. A presidential debate is probably not the best place to get into the complexities of these conflicting and dangerous alliances, but it highlighted just how difficult it will be for the next president to decide how to go forward in this campaign. Trump was even worse.
At points in the debate on ISIS, the Republican candidate sounded exactly like one of the conspiracy theorists appearing on Russian or Iranian state TV with lines such as "ISIS was created by Barack Obama and Secretary Clinton." He managed to insist, untruthfully, that he had been against the Iraq war, while trying to blame Obama and Clinton for not keeping ten thousand troops there, which could have prevented the rise of ISIS – though that number would not have been sufficient and much of the exponential rate of the Islamic State took place anyway across the border in Syria. He also said that the U.S. should bring NATO to join the fight against ISIS, though of course, NATO and many of its members is already there.
Trump was even more deluded on nuclear matters. He accused the current administration of allowing the Russians to steal a march on the U.S. by updating its nuclear arsenal, bringing up the venerable, yet extremely capable B-52 as an example. And yes, while it's true that there are grandfathers older than the BUFF, Russia's main strategic bomber, the Tupolev Tu-95, is of the same age and the Russians don't have serving alongside it anything comparable to the American B-2 stealth bomber.
Likewise on the Iran nuclear deal, Trump was flailing. He accused the administration of saving Iran which "was about to fall" and that now "it's going to be a major power." Neither assertion of course resembles actual facts. However, on the Iran deal, Clinton also was playing fast and loose with the facts.
She claimed that upon becoming secretary of state in 2009, the Iranians were "weeks" from having a nuclear weapon. None of the intelligence estimates support such a timeframe. She went on to extolling her diplomacy and the deal eventually achieved, particularly the "unprecedented access" to Iran's nuclear installations – which actually was one of the weakest points in the agreement. But it didn't matter at this point, because Trump was by then just like a clueless contestant on a quiz-show, grasping for a "phone a friend" lifeline. The friend was Benjamin Netanyahu who "believe me, is not a happy camper."
Clinton's choice to stand up so firmly for the Iran deal was interesting. Though she had laid some of the groundwork, it is fully the legacy of Obama and John Kerry. She originally endorsed the deal rather tepidly and let it be known she had some reservations. Her belated conversion to the ranks of those who fulsomely praise the Iran deal most likely has little to do with her actual opinion of it, rather than the need to boost her flagging ratings by hitching her wagon to Obama's legacy in all things.
The saddest thing about the debate, from a global perspective, is that while Clinton spoke strongly about America "standing up to bullies" around the world, no doubt also hinting at the by-then-rather-deflated bully standing at the other podium, she gave no real idea of how as president she plans to do so. The world's greatest current tragedy, the war in Syria, wasn't even mentioned once, though this is also the fault of moderator Lester Holt. Perhaps in one of the next debates we'll get some more clues. The best that can be said so far is that at least Clinton wants to confront the bullies, and judging from her performance last night against Trump, in his case, she knows how to do it.
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