Republican President Teddy Roosevelt, hardly anyone’s idea of a dove, famously proclaimed that in exercising diplomatic and military power, the U.S. should “talk softly and carry a big stick.”
In contrast, each time there’s a terror attack or other violent incident anywhere in the world, Donald Trump speaks loudly, while his small fingers are firmly wrapped around a tiny, small stick.
In response to the tragic attack in Nice by a deranged man of Moroccan descent, Trump’s first response was to promise that “if we’re elected, we’ll be very strong and very smart.” Speaking by phone to Bill O’Reilly, Trump then called for a congressional declaration of war on ISIL, also known as the Islamic State or ISIS.
But when pressed by Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes how he would conduct that war and whether he’d send American troops, Trump suddenly turned timid:
“I’m going to have very few troops on the ground. We’re going to have unbelievable intelligence, which we need, which right now we don’t have. We don’t have the people over there. And we’re going to have surrounding states and, very importantly, get NATO involved because we support NATO far more than we should, frankly, because you have a lot of countries that aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing.
"And we have to wipe out ISIL.
“And speaking of Turkey, Turkey is an ally. Turkey can do it by themselves. But they have to be incentivized. For whatever reason, they’re not. So we have no choice.”
So there you have it, Trump's plan to be "strong and smart" to crush ISIL.
● First, Trump would wait for a declaration of war from Congress, something that has occurred only five times in U.S. history, the last right after Pearl Harbor. Although Section 8 of the Constitution states that Congress shall have the power to declare war, since World War II many military conflicts, like the Vietnam War, the Afghanistan War and both Iraq Wars, were conducted by the president under lesser authorizations of force. (As an aside, Trump, in his skewed way, may have raised a valid issue: The willingness of presidents to conduct extended wars without a congressional declaration of war and the willingness of Congress to turn a blind eye in order to avoid a controversial vote is, to say the least, constitutionally troubling.) But the idea that the nation with the most powerful military on earth would declare war on a nonstate actor that the CIA estimates has 20,000-31,500 fighters in Iraq and Syria is slightly absurd and would do little to make the war efforts stronger. Indeed, the U.S. declaring War on ISIL would more likely strengthen ISIL by giving it the legitimacy it so badly craves.
● Then, having obtained a congressional declaration of war against ISIL, Trump promises to deploy “very few troops.” WTF? That’s how he’s going to smash ISIL?
● Instead of troops, Trump promises “unbelievable intelligence.” What does he think the CIA, the NSA, and military intelligence have been trying to obtain? If he thinks U.S. intelligence agencies are incompetent, he should say so and present a plan to fix it.
● Then, he’ll avoid sending many U.S. troops by getting surrounding states and NATO to do the fighting (presumably by threatening to cut off funding to NATO.) But according to the State Department, there are already 60 countries, including most NATO allies and friendly Arab states, involved in the anti-ISIL coalition (of which 22 have joined the military component). How, exactly, does Trump plan to convince them to put more boots on the ground when the U.S. is unwilling to?
● Finally, Trump would get Turkey, which just avoided a military coup, to wipe out ISIL itself by providing the right incentives. What incentives? A tax abatement on a new casino?
That sums up Trump’s strong and smart plant to smash ISIL and make America safe again: Declare war, send few troops, obtain better intelligence, and get our NATO, Arab and Turkish allies to do most of the fighting.
Trump’s weak, ignorant and thoughtless plans for quickly smashing ISIL wouldn’t be as troubling were it not for his belligerent rhetoric. Indeed, I'm not sure there's any politician or any stripe with a coherent plan to defeat ISIL and other terrorist groups in a short period of time.
Ending the jihadist threat (or to make Republicans happy, call it the threat from radical Islamists) will likely take years and involve a complex combination of economic development, education, diplomacy and military action. But any strategy has to be exercised carefully. Too many American actions in the Middle East – from overthrowing the democratically elected government of Iran and installing the Shah in 1953; to supporting the Mujahidin to defeat the Russians in Afghanistan, which morphed into Al Qaeda; to invading Iraq which birthed the forces who became ISIL – have led to blowback and a bigger terrorist threat.
Actually, President Obama’s strategy of assembling a coalition, conducting airstrikes, and working with sympathetic forces has begun to produce some results, significantly reducing the amount of territory which ISIL holds. Indeed, ISIL’s strategy of encouraging terrorist acts by small groups or lone wolves in the West with little or no central coordination may be a reaction to its weakness rather than its strength.
The only Western politician with the courage to tell the truth may be French President Manuel Vallis, who stated after Nice, “The times have changed. France is going to have to get used to terrorism.” Truth be told, so may the U.S. (I say this with no joy. I lost a close first cousin who worked in the twin towers on 9/11, and I still grieve.)
But with a public whipped into a frenzy by hysterical 24-hour-a-day news coverage, and a military-industrial complex that stands to benefit, no national American politician, including Hillary Clinton, is willing to say so.
As overly hawkish as I fear Clinton may be, unlike Trump, she at least has a basic knowledge of the players in the Middle East and a complex view of geopolitical strategy. If we only have a choice of two people to be the next commander-in-chief with a finger on the nuclear button, better it not be an ignorant bully like Donald Trump, who speaks loudly and carries a small stick.
As lifetime anti-war activist Tom Hayden told me, the next president, whether Clinton or Trump, is likely to be a war president. So it may partly be a matter of choosing which war President, and then organizing, in the streets if necessary, to oppose any imperial overreach or unnecessary wars of regime change.