For most Democrats, Feb. 9 was a memorable day because of Bernie Sanders’s defeat of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire Primary. But other, less widely heard news from that day may wind up telling us something more important about what is ahead for the November election.
On Capitol Hill, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper delivered his annual Worldwide Threats Assessment together with several of the nation’s intelligence community leaders. The picture he delivered was remarkable — undoubtedly one of the most alarming such presentations in many years. Clapper conceded: “In my 50-plus years in the intelligence business, I cannot recall a more diverse array of challenges and crises than we confront today.”
Clapper walked his senatorial audience through a litany of profoundly complex problems on the international landscape: A China that is testing the limits, pressing for more regional and global power; a Russia determined to reshape the balance of power in Eurasia, raise its standing in the Middle East and check American hegemony in hotspots around the world; a North Korea bent on advancing its nuclear program as well as host of challenges as diverse as cyber and uncontrolled migration.
Listening to these comments from professionals who have served presidents of both parties, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that something big, possibly game-changing, is likely to happen between now and November, and national security will be a top — perhaps the top — concern on Election Day.
What’s more, the assessment pointed to a durable terrorist threat from both ISIS and Al Qaeda. Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Vincent R. Stewart, who testified with Clapper, stated that the Islamic State would “attempt to direct attacks on the US homeland in 2016.” With public opinion already wildly overheated on the issue of potential attacks after San Bernardino and Paris, this is truly ominous talk.
As Democrats who have worked on national security issues in Washington — among us we have more than 70 years experience in the White House and federal agencies — we find this prospect deeply troubling. Listening to the discussions of foreign policy from the Republican candidates — and, above all, Donald Trump — is terrifying. So we should be clear: Given the inability of the GOP to stop Trump, the best way to prevent him from becoming president is to ensure Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee. In our view, if Sanders is the nominee, the Democrats will lose this election because he is not a plausible commander-in-chief.
We share a great respect for the senator’s passion for creating a more just society and for his ability to inspire his supporters. We agree that paramount issues of the day include redressing income inequality and campaign finance reform, even if we don’t believe he has demonstrated an ability in his legislative career to create the change he wants.
For all his virtues, Bernie Sanders is a one-dimensional candidate in a contest that demands all-around excellence. When asked about foreign policy challenges, he returns invariably to ISIS but presents no plan other than insisting that regional Muslims must lead the effort when they show no inclination of doing so. He advocates greater Iranian involvement though that would undermine our work to contain Iranian influence and alienate all the Sunni Arab powers he wants to bear the burden of the fight against extremism.
His comments to date on Russia and China have been remarkably superficial, focusing on the notion that we can deal with them because they are integrated into the global system and therefore will respond to pressure. This is not a strategy but a bromide.
By contrast, Hillary Clinton has both a lifelong commitment to social issues of equity and more experience and depth on international issues than any non-incumbent candidate for president in more than 50 years. Sanders is correct that the nation requires judgment at least as much as experience. Having worked closely with Clinton, we know well that she has both.
Whether working on her staff at the State Department or across the table from her in interagency meetings in the White House Situation Room, we have seen her mastery of her brief and exceptional judgment firsthand. Whether the issue was how we would cripple Al Qaeda, reorient our force structure in Asia or manage a complex information-sharing and privacy deal with Europe, we witnessed a first-rate talent at work.
In era when building partnerships with nations around the world is absolutely essential for solving the problems that no one country can alone, Clinton has demonstrated extraordinary skill. Her talents were essential for rehabilitating America’s image after the catastrophe of the George W. Bush years and for building coalitions such as those necessary to deal with climate change, Iran’s dangerous nuclear program and violent extremism.
It is not going too far to say that her skills deeply impressed senior military officers and long-time professionals throughout the national security community. These are not issues one can bone up on between Election Day and the inauguration — and Hillary Clinton would be ready on day one.
It’s important to underscore not only that the choice Democrats face is not just about who will best embody their values but also about who can make it to the Oval Office and deliver once there.
The Democratic race thus far is happening in a bubble. Exit polls in New Hampshire showed only 9 percent of Democratic voters there said that terrorism is the issue that most concerns them; in Iowa, it was 6 percent. For Republicans, it was 24 percent in New Hampshire, almost exactly the same in Iowa and dipped to 19 percent in Nevada.
Anyone who thinks that independents, the largest bloc of voters in the United States, will see the world the way Democrats do is wrong: For months, polls have shown that the public as whole sees terrorism the way Republicans do, with as many as 40 percent saying in a Wall Street Journal/NBC survey that it is the number one issue.
None of the Republicans has any foreign policy experience of note. But the fact is that over many decades — and even after the last Republican Administration’s appalling misadventure in Iraq — voters have given the GOP the edge on national security by a margin of more than 10 percent. That edge disappears if Clinton wins the nomination; a Washington Post ABC poll last fall showed her to be the candidate most trusted to deal with terrorism.
So if we get to November, and it’s Sanders versus one of the remaining five Republicans, the nation loses — and we’ll get neither a more just society nor greater security. That’s a loss we cannot afford.
Rand Beers served an undersecretary, acting deputy secretary, and acting secretary of homeland security from 2009 to 2013. Daniel Benjamin was coordinator for counterterrorism at the US State Department from 2009 to 2012. Kathleen Hicks served as the principal deputy undersecretary defense for policy and a deputy undersecretary of defense from 2009 to 2013.