I could try to make sense of Donald Trump’s mishmash of bizarre and contradictory theories of world affairs, but you can’t create sense where there isn’t any. There’s not enough room in this paper to outline all the glaring factual errors and debunk all the illogical assertions in his national security speech delivered Monday in Ohio.
So let’s stick with the bare bones.
There are the untruths about Trump’s own positions, like his claim he opposed the Iraq War and the Libya intervention from the start, despite interviews proving otherwise. There are his ahistorical claims that President Barack Obama’s policies created the Islamic State or ISIS, an insurgent group previously known as al-Qaeda in Iraq that grew out of Sunni anger over President George W. Bush’s 2003 Iraq invasion.
There are Trump’s contradictions on Iraq: Though we shouldn’t have invaded it in the first place, he says, we should have seized Iraq’s oil and kept American troops there. Grabbing Iraq’s assets would, of course, violate international law, and keeping troops in Iraq flip-flops Trump’s 2007 call on Bush to withdraw.
There’s Trump’s illogical claim that Obama and Hillary Clinton caused the chaos in the Middle East, with no mention of uprisings against Arab autocrats that began in December 2010. There’s his cherry-picking of a six-week period to misleadingly claim ISIS is attacking every 84 hours — as though the three attacks per month over the 26 months since ISIS declared its “caliphate” weren’t bad enough.
Ironically, Trump’s call for “extreme, extreme” ideological vetting of Muslim immigrants to ensure they agree with what he called American values of gay rights, gender equality, and religious freedom is a test some members of the Republican Party would fail. The GOP platform opposes same-sex marriage, as do 67 percent of Republicans, according to a Pew Research Center poll. (Include Trump running mate Mike Pence among them.) Congressional Republicans have twice blocked legislation to close the gender pay gap, and polls show Republicans are less committed to freedom of religion for Muslims than for any other faith.
Then there’s the list of things Trump says he will do to stop ISIS immediately: capture high-value targets; aggressively continue drone strikes; cooperate with NATO and other nations, including Russia, on intelligence-sharing and shutting down terror networks; impose financial sanctions; and punish anyone who aids terrorists.
Do those sound like smart policies? Surprise: It’s what Obama already is doing.
And therein lies Trump’s problem. He has no national security doctrine, just a jumble of gut instincts and mood swings with a tough guy veneer.
Aside from declaring a war of words on “radical Islamic terrorism,” advocating torture (which didn’t work out so well for Bush in his similar-sounding “war on terror”), proposing an ideological test for Muslims, and asserting that he’ll shut down terrorists’ access to the Internet “immediately” (without explaining how), there’s nothing different in his national security prescriptions from 15 years of counterterrorism policies of the Bush and Obama administrations.
This week, Russia for the first time launched airstrikes from Iran on ISIS targets in Syria, sending a message that Vladimir Putin’s influence in the Middle East is growing and that he’ll cooperate with our adversaries, including Iran, if we don’t play by his rules. Putin also boosted troops on Ukraine’s border and is reviving the bellicose rhetoric that accompanied his Crimean land grab in 2014. Trump makes no mention of this, citing only his belief in “common ground with Russia.”
We can only hope the Republican nominee learns something from his first classified intelligence briefing this week.
Clinton, meanwhile, owes voters specifics on what she’d do differently from Obama to destroy ISIS in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, and on how she’d make us safer at home. The media should be pressing her on both. Instead, we’re consumed with critiquing Trump’s nonsensical assertions that he’d bend the world to his will on everything from the Iran nuclear deal to NAFTA.
It’s a fair argument to make that Obama hasn’t pursued his own policies effectively enough and that Clinton hasn’t articulated how she’d better neutralize terrorists. But just as she needs to make her case, Trump needs to tell us what he would do differently — not paradoxically claim Obama’s counterterrorism policies as his own invention.Indira A.R. Lakshmanan is a Washington columnist. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.