Now that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have both given speeches laying out their national security visions, the lines in the 2016 foreign policy debate have been drawn: In the race to be commander in chief, Clinton is campaigning as a center-right internationalist, while Trump is campaigning from the isolationist left.
Clinton’s big national security speech in San Diego last week was framed, in part, to appeal to anti-Trump conservatives. She argued that she is the only candidate in the race who understands “if America doesn’t lead, we leave a vacuum,” which our rivals will “rush in to fill.” She promised to go “toe-to-toe” with Vladimir Putin (never mind that she was the architect of the disastrous Russian “reset”), to “stick with our allies” (never mind that she’s the one who threw Poland and the Czech Republic under the bus, withdrawing plans for ballistic missile defense sites after they agreed to stand up to Russia and host them) and to “listen to our generals” (never mind that it was on her watch that the Obama administration withdrew all U.S. forces from Iraq, against the advice of our generals, paving the way for the rise of the Islamic State).
To conservatives rightly skeptical of her record, Clinton offered a simple answer: You have no alternative because, she says, Trump is “temperamentally unfit” to serve as commander in chief. She pointed out his “affection for tyrants” (never mind that she once called Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad a “reformer” and Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and his wife “friends of my family”). She echoed the criticism leveled by Trump’s Republican rivals that Trump will “stay neutral on Israel’s security” and declared Trump’s foreign policy vision “dangerously incoherent.”
If you believe in American engagement in the world, Clinton effectively argued, I am your only choice.
Meanwhile, Trump is running to Clinton’s left on global affairs in an effort to win over Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) supporters. He believes he can lock in the GOP’s growing isolationist/non-interventionist minority, while expanding his support on the left by echoing the policies and even the language of the Democratic socialist on foreign affairs.
Trump responded to Clinton’s speech by declaring “I’m the one that didn’t want to go into Iraq, folks, and she’s the one that stupidly raised her hand to go into Iraq and destabilize the entire Middle East.” And he declared last month: “Her decision to go in — and this was her baby, Libya — was a disaster.” That’s indistinguishable from Sanders, who proudly says: “I voted against the war in Iraq . . . Secretary Clinton voted for that war. She was proud to have been involved in regime change in Libya.”
Trump is also campaigning on a promise to pull back from the Middle East so that we can spend the money here at home. “We have spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people,” Trump says. “If we could have spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges and all of the other problems, our airports and all of the other problems we have, we would have been a lot better off — I can tell you that right now.” This is, almost verbatim, what Sanders says: “We are spending $4 trillion on war in Iraq — by the way helping to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure — when what we should be doing is investing that money in our bridges, our roads, our sewer systems, our wastewater plants.”
Trump is running to Clinton’s left on international trade, never failing to point out that her husband signed the North American Free Trade Agreement. “NAFTA . . . has been a total disaster for the United States and has emptied our states — literally emptied our states of our manufacturing and our jobs,” Trump recently declared, echoing Sanders, who declares that Clinton voted “for virtually every trade agreement that has cost the workers of this country millions of jobs.”
Trump is careful not to go too far and thus alienate the hawkish GOP base, 75 percent of whom support sending ground troops to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and 90 percent of whom say President Obama’s approach to terrorism has not been aggressive enough. Trump promises to “beat the hell out of ISIS,” waterboard captured terrorists, target their families and rebuild our military.
But his strategy is clear: Trump believes he can win up to 40 percent of Sanders voters in November, while Clinton is counting on winning over Republicans who care about responsible international leadership. To reach these voters, the two have turned the foreign policy debate on its head, each appealing across party lines to the other’s base.
Will it work? To vote for Clinton, Republicans would have to choke down their disdain for her disastrous record from Benghazi to the rise of the Islamic State. To vote for Trump, Sanders voters would have to get over their disgust for waterboarding and wall-building. For many on the left and right, that may be too much to bear.
This much is certain: At a time when approval of Obama’s handling of foreign policy is underwater by a whopping margin of 57 percent to 39 percent, foreign policy should be a liability for Clinton. Instead, she enjoys an almost 30-point advantage over Trump on the question of whom voters trust to handle foreign affairs. Trump has willingly ceded the historic GOP foreign policy advantage to win over the #NeverHillary left. We’ll see whether his gamble pays off.