After weeks of liberal panic over how to deal with Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton finally faced her Donald Trump problem head on Thursday, delivering an eviscerating foreign policy speech that laid out all the reasons why the presumptive Republican nominee is emotionally unhinged and generally unfit to be president.
The argument—which, as VICE’s Harry Cheadle notes, is one we’re likely to hear again and again over the next five months—is essentially this: You may not agree with, or even like, Clinton, but at least you can be reasonably sure she’s not going to lead the world into nuclear apocalypse; with Trump, all bets are off.
Billed by her campaign as a major national security address, the speech mostly consisted of Clinton reciting some of Trump’s more insane foreign policy ideas as evidence that he is ““temperamentally unfit” to be president, and “will take our country down a truly dangerous path.”
“It’s clear he doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about,” Clinton told the audience in San Diego, clearly enjoying herself. “So we can’t be certain which of these things he would do. But we can be certain that he’s capable of doing any or all of them. Letting ISIS run wild. Launching a nuclear attack. Starting a ground war. These are all distinct possibilities with Donald Trump in charge.”
The speech signaled a new, more aggressive campaign persona for Clinton, marking a clear pivot away from the primary race and toward what is clearly going to be an endlessly grim fight against Trump. What it didn’t do, though, is reveal anything about Clinton’s own, often hawkish, foreign policy views, except that she wouldn’t sit back and watch North Korea and Japan annihilate each other.
And as tempting as it may be to accept Clinton’s dismissal of Trump as a emotionally unhinged warmonger, it’s also worth noting—as Bernie Sanders did in a statement following her speech Thursday—that the former secretary of state has herself faced considerable criticism for her foreign policy choices, most famously that vote for the war in Iraq and her support for US military intervention in Libya.
So to help figure out whether Trump’s insanity should be taken as an article of faith, as Clinton suggests, I got in touch with defense and foreign policy expert Christopher Preble. A vice president at the Cato Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank based in Washington, DC, Preble told me that Clinton is right about Trump in a lot of ways—but that some of his foreign policy plans may not be quite as crazy as she claims.[embedded content]
VICE: In her speech Thursday, Hillary Clinton pointed out that Donald Trump has entertained the idea of letting Saudi Arabia get nuclear weapons. Is that as crazy as it sounds?
Christopher Preble: There are trade-offs. There are pluses and minuses. But as far as Hillary Clinton is concerned—and I think most people in the foreign policy establishment [feel the same]—the idea that the United States actively discourages other countries from developing nuclear weapons is obviously a good thing, and they don’t want anyone to question it.
I get that. I understand it, in the sense of there not being more countries with nuclear weapons. But if I look at the track record, we’ve done a reasonably good job of convincing our friends not to develop nuclear weapons—but we’ve done a sort of lousy job of convincing our potential adversaries not to have nuclear weapons.
She also mocked Trump’s claim that he has a secret plan to fight ISIS, which he says is “foolproof.” Is there any universe in which this could be true?
Secret plans? [Laughs] No. Can you write “he says with a laugh?”
She seems to want Trump to rule out nuking ISIS, which he has refused to do. Is using nuclear bombs against ISIS an option?
If he nukes ISIS, he’s going to kill a lot of innocent people. ISIS-inspired people carried out an attack in Belgium. Does that mean he’s gonna nuke Belgium?
We have to remember why it is that we find this organization so reprehensible. It’s because they have perpetrated horrific crimes on innocent people in Iraq and Syria. So nuking them means nuking tens of thousands or more of innocent people. Where’s the justice in that? Where’s the strategic logic in that? There isn’t any. It’s just knee-jerk, rhetorical garbage.
Is she right to single out Trump’s suggestion that we should deal with potential terrorists by “taking out their families“?
I think so. It is appalling [and] also a war crime, and [he could have had] a five-minute conversation with someone in the military who understands why it’s a war crime, and understands why it is appropriate that the US military tries—and I think tries heroically—to abide by certain norms. That’s not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. And he appears to have given that absolutely no thought whatsoever.
Clinton also quoted Trump as saying he would cut off military support for Japan, and even stay on the sidelines in the event of a military conflict between Japan and North Korea. Can you explain that scenario?
First of all, that’s not gonna happen. And even if it does, it’s not like one day the US is going to evacuate Okinawa and hand the [military] bases back. That’s not how it’s done. It doesn’t work that way. It’s part of a conversation—a long term process, where you evaluate different allies and interests, and their ability to deal with common challenges. Who is in a better position to deal with a problem [like] disputed territorial claims? The United States, 6,000 miles away? Or Japan? I would argue Japan.
What about NATO? Trump has said he’d be willing to pull the US out—is there any value to that idea?
I think so. I think the way [Trump’s] gone about [proposing] it is characteristically Trump-ish. It’s not very well-thought-out, it seems impetuous.
But I think NATO made a lot of sense during the Cold War—these countries were badly broken, they were in no position to defend themselves. Over time, they got rich, and the Soviet Union ended, and we never revised that bargain. We never revisited that basic arrangement: “We’ll defend you, and you’ll let us.” And I think that was a mistake. We never had a serious conversation about when we were gonna take the training wheels off.
Trump has also suggested that if elected, he might not maintain America’s “special relationship” with the United Kingdom.
Of the many things he’s said, this is hardly the most outrageous. But we should say that if the UK votes for Brexit next month, then President Obama has intimated that we wouldn’t have a special relationship with them.
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