War Stories

Well, That Was a Waste of Time

Trump told lies while Clinton delivered a mixed performance at the military forum.

Matt Lauer questions Hillary Clinton at the NBC News Commander-in-Chief Forum in New York on Wednesday.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

What an ill-focused forum, a senseless not-quite-debate, another wasted hour in an election season that’s been more wasteful and dispiriting than anyone could have imagined possible, until it gets more dispiriting still.

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which sponsored Wednesday’s “commander-in-chief forum,” as they called it, is a laudable organization, and the tragedy of our wounded warriors and the mess of the Veterans Affairs system warrants more attention. But a back-to-back Q-and-A with the two main presidential candidates might not be the best place. A veteran in the audience asks what they think of the high rate of suicides among his comrades-in-arms, and what answer can anyone expect but “It’s terrible, I plan to do something about this, go read the position paper on my website.”

The moderator, NBC’s Matt Lauer (who proved himself unready from Moment 1), grilled Hillary Clinton on her emails—entirely appropriate, but then two of the veterans in the audience also grilled her on the emails. (Were the questions screened?) By the time Lauer got around to asking her about the Iran nuclear deal and she started to explain the deal’s context, he interrupted and urged her to make her answer quick. He did that a couple of times.

Lauer put some challenging questions to Donald Trump as well, asking, for instance, what in his experience made him qualified to be commander-in-chief. He replied, “I built a great company, I’ve been all over the world, I’ve dealt with foreign countries. … I have great judgment, I know what’s going on”—saying (and being asked) nothing about his company’s four bankruptcies, the fleecing of vendors, or the fundamental difference between running a business (where there’s a clear profit-loss tally) and running a country (where there are competing views of what the goals should be).

Asked how he’s been preparing for the awesome job of commander-in-chief, should he be elected, Trump referred to the 88 generals and admirals who recently endorsed him without noting that he’s consulted, or even talked with, very few of them. He then said, as he’s said before, “I think also I really feel I have a common sense on the issues”—proving yet again that Trump is that most dangerous man: a prospective national leader who doesn’t know just how much he doesn’t know.

Lauer then recalled Trump’s statement, a few weeks ago, that in the heat of a campaign, he sometimes says things that he regrets, and asked if this is a quality one should seek in a president. Trump replied, “I regret, but in the meantime, I beat 16 people”—referring to his primary opponents—“and here I am.” To Trump, it’s all about the popularity. Similarly, when asked about his admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he noted Putin’s 82 percent popularity rating among his people, making him, Trump said, a better leader than President Obama.

Trump disputed Clinton’s remark in the first half of the forum that he, too, had initially supported the invasion of Iraq, saying that he opposed the war in a 2004 issue of Esquire. But the invasion took place in 2003, and he told Howard Stern a few months before its launching that he favored the war—just as he also, in fact, favored U.S. military intervention in Libya, for which he lambasted Clinton, blaming her for the chaos that ensued.

The most jaw-dropping moment may have come when he said that we could have preempted the rise of ISIS if only we’d taken Iraq’s oil. “It used to be ‘To the victors belong the spoils,’ ” he said—thus confirming every anti-American’s deep belief that our foreign policy is driven by rapacious imperialism. How would you take the oil? Lauer asked. “We’d leave a group behind, we would take sections that have the oil,” Trump replied, as if that were the easiest thing in the world.

Trump used to say that he had a plan to defeat ISIS “very fast,” but recently he said he would ask his generals to give him a plan within 30 days on how to do so. Is that his plan, Lauer asked: to get others to come up with a plan? “No,” Trump replied, “but when I do come up with a plan that I like—I may love what the generals come up with … I have a plan … maybe a combination of my plan and the generals’ plan”—without once hinting, even broadly, what his plan entailed.

Then again, Hillary Clinton didn’t do so well at this forum either. She started strong. Asked to list the most important character traits of a commander-in-chief, she replied, “Steadiness … mixed with strength … someone who listens, who evaluates … who is able to sort out the very difficult options and make the decision,” like the one that she helped make to raid Osama Bin Laden’s lair. She was listing the traits that she most clearly possesses and Trump most clearly lacks.

Then came the onslaught of questions about emails, the Iraq vote, and Libya—for which she’d prepared answers that were coherent (if not quite convincing to viewers who hold those issues against her). She mounted a good defense of the Iran nuclear deal, summarizing her stance on Iran in general as “distrust but verify.” She rattled off the many things she’s done and bills she’s helped pass to assist veterans—more than Trump has done.

But she took a strange route when it came to the war against ISIS. She said she supported airstrikes, special-ops forces, and enablers to help Arab and Kurdish ground fighters—but, she added, no U.S. ground troops. “We are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again” or in Syria either. Well, we have put a few thousand ground troops in Iraq and Syria: That’s what those special-ops forces and enablers are. She might have been more precise had she pledged not to escalate beyond the levels or types of troops in place now—but it’s hard to say what precisely she thinks.

Then again, she clearly thinks something, she thinks about these issues, she’s thought about them a lot, though sometimes, as she now admits, to mistaken conclusions—whereas Trump has never thought about them at all yet believes he’s a sage.

This was the choice laid out before us: on the one hand, a flawed, sometimes slippery, but capable, intelligent, tough woman well-versed in all levels of politics and diplomacy—on the other hand, a man who thinks he’s all those things but isn’t any of them. But there was one moment that may have stood out in the minds of the undecided—when Trump said of Clinton, “She’s been there for 30 years. We need change.”

It was the same tack he took when he tried to appeal to black Americans by saying, “What have you got to lose?” It didn’t work with black Americans. For one thing, he made the remark to an all-white audience. For another, black life in America isn’t the unrelieved hellhole that he depicted. Trump spent his time Wednesday night—and in a speech earlier in the day—painting America’s military as “depleted,” its foreign policy as “disastrous,” and its generals (except for those supporting him) as “reduced to rubble” under the leadership of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. His speech was jammed with mendacity, comparing the number of U.S. warships and jet fighters with those of decades ago (without noting the enormous difference in quality) and claiming that Obama has shrunk the military budget (when in fact it’s larger than it has been for the last 30 years).

Hillary Clinton wasn’t asked about any of these matters. But if Trump’s big lies are believed, if people (most of whom don’t experience foreign policy in their everyday lives) are convinced that we’re getting weak, growing limp, and so “we need change,” even from someone who seems so improbably cast for the job, he might sway votes his way, even on this issue, where the contrast between the two candidates is so enormous—vaster than the contrast between any two candidates in modern times—that the contest should be tipping effortlessly the other way.

Read more from Slate on the 2016 campaign.