An Analysis of the Candidates on National Security and Defense Issues: Donald Trump
This is the second in a series of analyses of the candidates’ national security positions based primarily on information gleaned from their web sites. Part 1, Bernie Sanders, can be found here.
Overall Evaluation. Although he is the Republican front runner, Mr. Trump is remarkably light on national security and defense issues; his website does not have a national security section although it does have a section on immigration which the candidate considers to be a national security concern. Mr. Trump generally answers questions about national security with forceful but general statements. For example, in the February 13th Republican primary debate, he was asked what three national security questions he will ask when he first meets with his advisors if elected president. His answer was typically pugnacious: “What we wanna do, when we wanna do it, and how hard do we wanna hit.” Mr. Trump certainly does not rule out the use of force, but he is generally hard to pin down on when and how force would be applied. It does appear that he would defer to military advisors for specific plans.
Defeating the Islamic State. Trump has called his plan to defeat ISIS “foolproof”. However, he has declined to go into details other than that he will “bomb the hell” out of them and take away their oil. Presumably he will intensify bombing from current levels and go after oil infrastructure including civilian convoys transporting petroleum products.
Mr. Trump has also surfaced the idea of going after the families of ISIS members. This indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the group’s make up. Most of its strength is in foreign fighters who have abandoned their families and whose identities are largely unknown to us. Many have forcibly taken local wives in territory they have occupied and treat the unwilling wives as war booty. This will largely render Trump’s threat hollow.
Russia, China, Libya, and North Korea. Regarding Russian influence in Syria and the Ukraine, Trump expresses uncharacteristic restraint and patience. Part of this may be due to Russian President Putin having praised Trump’s intellect. Trump wants to take a “wait and see” attitude in Syria. He has expressed some interest in establishing what he calls a “safe zone” (presumably a no fly zone) in the hope that it would staunch the flow of refugees. Mr. Trump appears to view Putin as another tough guy who he can do business with.
China is clearly in Mr. Trumps sights, but his concerns are primarily economic. He has not been vocal on China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, but it can be presumed that if some kind of crisis regarding them arises during the campaign, that he will take a hard line stand in favor of US allies in the region. Trump Sees North Korea as a Chinese problem and has said that, as president, he would lean hard on Beijing to bring North Korea to heel.
Regarding Libya, Mr. Trump has not been vocal other than to call Benghazi a cover -up. In a general election showdown with Mrs. Clinton, he could be expected to make Benghazi an issue.
Iran. Of all the Republican candidates, Mr. Trump is most dismissive of the Iranian nuclear deal; calling it dumb has been the nicest thing he has said about it. Although he has said he would renegotiate the agreement, Trump has not gone so far as Senator Cruz in saying that he would tear up the agreement on his first day in office. Trump has also said that the United States should support any nation (presumably Israel) that takes military action against Iran. In the past, Trump has stated the belief that the United States will eventually go to war with Iran. However, Trump generally is in the Republican mainstream in his views on Iran.
Counter-terrorism and Homeland Defense. Most Republican voters who support him view Mr. Trump as the anti-Obama when it comes to fighting home grown terrorism if polls are to be believed. Trump has accused President Obama of being afraid to call Islamic terrorism what it is, and his hard line against further Muslim immigration has played well with primary voters to date.
Pentagon Reform and the Size of the Military. Mr. Trump instinctively realizes that there has been degradation in the American military in the last seven years, but he attributes it to the military’s declining size; he promises to increase the numbers of troops, ships, and planes. Although there are problems in size of the force, the reality is that the real problem cited privately by serving and former officers has been institutional neglect. The use of the military as a platform to make statements on gay rights, women in combat, and global warming have left many career officers and mid-level leaders frustrated and concerned. In addition, the pernicious effect of overly restrictive rules of engagement have hurt morale in the services worse than at any time since the Carter administration in the seventies of the last century.
If he becomes the Republican nominee, Mr. Trump will likely inherit at least some of the Jeb Bush national security team. If he is smart enough to listen to them, he can overcome much of his ignorance regarding the military and national security policy.
Immigration. Mr. Trump has based much of his campaign on his anti-immigration stance. Virtually all Republican candidates vow to strengthen border security, but Trump has gone so far as to promise to deport the 11,000,000 illegal immigrants now here. Republican opponents have challenged the feasibility of the promise, but to date those arguments have not appeared to swayed many voters away from Mr. Trump.
The Republican Primaries. Mr. Trump has benefitted from the large numbers of candidates on the stage to date in the Republican debates. There has not been time for the other candidates to successfully pin him down on the details of his defense and national security pronouncements. That period ended in the February 13th debate, and Trump will increasingly come under scrutiny from his peers and in media interviews. He will need to hit the books more in the future if he is to survive in the national security arena. To date, Mr. Trumps campaign has targeted angry voters looking for change. It remains to be seen if his emotional appeal survives more detailed scrutiny, particularly on national security.
The General Election Campaign. Ironically, if he becomes the Republican nominee in the general election, Trump may have an easier time on national security than in the primaries if he does indeed do his homework. If Senator Sanders is the Democrat nominee, Mr. Trump will be facing another national security feather merchant whose stated positions will be hard to defend. Presumably, Mr. Trump would inherit at least some of Jeb Bush’s retired military and national security experts. If he is wise enough to listen to him, he can probably craft a more coherent national security platform.
If the Democratic nominee is Mrs. Clinton, she will be defending the Obama record which is weak, and on the defensive over Benghazi and her handling of classified material. If Mr. Trump stays on the offensive, national security should be the least of his worries.