Forgive me for looping back to the first Trump-Clinton debate, but I just read a piece by Retired Col. Andrew Bacevich, my favorite commentator on military matters, that I want to share with you because it is edifying, but also because it calls attention to the near substancelessness (yes, I know, that’s not exactly an official word) of the debates.
Lester Holt of NBC generally got poor reviews for his moderation of that debate, but it turns out that he asked quite a brilliant question that Donald Trump was too ill-informed to even grasp, and that Hillary Clinton was too slippery to honestly address. Here’s the question:
HOLT: Which leads to my next question, as we enter our last segment here on the subject of securing America. On nuclear weapons, President Obama reportedly considered changing the nation’s longstanding policy on first use. Do you support the current policy? Mr. Trump, you have two minutes on that.
I’m sure I heard the question at the time, but didn’t know how brilliant it was. Thanks to Bacevich, and a bit of looking more deeply in to the issue, here’s what I now know:
Three countries that possess nuclear weapons capabilities — China, India and North Korea — have, at least informally, pledged not to make a “first use” of nuclear weapons, which means that they pledge (whether you believe them or not) not to fire a nuclear missile unless one of the other nuclear powers has already crossed the threshold and used one.
The United States (the only nation ever to drop atomic weapons, at the end of World War II), has not made that “no first use” pledge. Its publicly announced policy, most recently updated in a 2010 statement of its “nuclear posture,” is that the United States “reserves the right to use” nuclear weapons first in the case of conflict, although the policy adds that: “The United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.”
President Obama recently considered whether to go further toward adopting a strict, “no-first-use” policy. But Holt did not specify, in his question to Clinton and Trump, what change in U.S. posture Obama considered. Bacevich assumes (and I suspect he is right) that Holt was, in addition to seeking each candidate’s thoughts on whether and under what circumstances to use nuclear weapons, seeking to flush out whether the candidates — and perhaps especially Trump — even knew about the issue and about Obama’s recent consideration of changing the U.S. posture on when to contemplate a first use of nuclear weapons.
At the bottom of this post, I’ll paste in the full exchange including the responses of both candidates. As Bacevich points out, Trump’s answer was gibberish. If you read it (below), you’ll see that he managed, within three sentences near the beginning of his ramble, to say both that “I would certainly not do first strike,” and “I can’t take anything off the table,” which sounds like a pretty serious contradiction, since “I would certainly not do first strike” amounts taking something off the table.
He spent the rest of his two minutes criticizing the alleged lack of deal-making prowess, including Clinton’s lack of prowess (although she was not a player in the actual U.S.-Iran negotiations since she left the cabinet by the time) that led to the (according to Trump) horrible deal that stopped Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon for at least the next 10 years.
Clinton, when her time came, used her full two minutes and made exactly zero references to the question about first use of nuclear weapons. Personally, I have little doubt that Clinton is familiar with the issue and probably has thoughts about Obama’s recent reconsideration of the U.S. posture.
But she used her time to bring up something barely related to the first use of nuclear weapons but which, obviously, was a worked-out-in-advance talking point designed to bring up one of Trump’s perceived weak points, namely his rhetoric that called into question whether the U.S. would honor its commitment to come to the aid of any NATO member nation that is attacked.
(Trump, as you probably know, has complained that many NATO members don’t spend as much on their military as they are obligated to under the NATO treaty, because they take us for suckers and poor deal-makers, and deal-making, in case you hadn’t heard, is one of his strengths.)
She also noted that Trump, while complaining about the bad deal with Iran, has never said what he would have done to get a better deal. (“Would he have started a war?”)
At that point, both candidates had used up their full two minutes allotted to address Holt’s excellent question, although neither had addressed it in even a minimally serious way. Trump then, in that adorable way he has, stole another minute to continue not addressing the first-use question but to generally denounce Clinton’s alleged fecklessness, leading with this not-about-first-use grammatically challenged sentence:
“But I will tell you that Hillary will tell you to go to her website and read all about how to defeat ISIS, which she could have defeated by never having it, you know, get going in the first place.”
So, if you would actually like to hear an informed discussion of the “no first use” issue, coming from a retired military man who has become of one of the most articulate critics of U.S. military actions, please read Bacevich’s explanation here.
And lastly, as promised, so you can check my work, here’s that portion of the first debate:
HOLT: Which leads to my next question, as we enter our last segment here (inaudible) the subject of securing America. On nuclear weapons, President Obama reportedly considered changing the nation’s longstanding policy on first use. Do you support the current policy? Mr. Trump, you have two minutes on that.
TRUMP: Well, I have to say that, you know, for what Secretary Clinton was saying about nuclear with Russia, she’s very cavalier in the way she talks about various countries. But Russia has been expanding their — they have a much newer capability than we do. We have not been updating from the new standpoint.
I looked the other night. I was seeing B-52s, they’re old enough that your father, your grandfather could be flying them. We are not — we are not keeping up with other countries. I would like everybody to end it, just get rid of it. But I would certainly not do first strike.
I think that once the nuclear alternative happens, it’s over. At the same time, we have to be prepared. I can’t take anything off the table. Because you look at some of these countries, you look at North Korea, we’re doing nothing there. China should solve that problem for us. China should go into North Korea. China is totally powerful as it relates to North Korea.
And by the way, another one powerful is the worst deal I think I’ve ever seen negotiated that you started is the Iran deal. Iran is one of their biggest trading partners. Iran has power over North Korea.
And when they made that horrible deal with Iran, they should have included the fact that they do something with respect to North Korea. And they should have done something with respect to Yemen and all these other places.
And when asked to Secretary Kerry, why didn’t you do that? Why didn’t you add other things into the deal? One of the great giveaways of all time, of all time, including $400 million in cash. Nobody’s ever seen that before. That turned out to be wrong. It was actually $1.7 billion in cash, obviously, I guess for the hostages. It certainly looks that way.
So you say to yourself, why didn’t they make the right deal? This is one of the worst deals ever made by any country in history. The deal with Iran will lead to nuclear problems. All they have to do is sit back 10 years, and they don’t have to do much.
HOLT: Your two minutes is expired.
TRUMP: And they’re going to end up getting nuclear. I met with Bibi Netanyahu the other day. Believe me, he’s not a happy camper.
HOLT: All right. Mrs. Clinton, Secretary Clinton, you have two minutes.
CLINTON: Well, let me —let me start by saying, words matter. Words matter when you run for president. And they really matter when you are president. And I want to reassure our allies in Japan and South Korea and elsewhere that we have mutual defense treaties and we will honor them.
It is essential that America’s word be good. And so I know that this campaign has caused some questioning and worries on the part of many leaders across the globe. I’ve talked with a number of them. But I want to — on behalf of myself, and I think on behalf of a majority of the American people, say that, you know, our word is good.
It’s also important that we look at the entire global situation. There’s no doubt that we have other problems with Iran. But personally, I’d rather deal with the other problems having put that lid on their nuclear program than still to be facing that.
And Donald never tells you what he would do. Would he have started a war? Would he have bombed Iran? If he’s going to criticize a deal that has been very successful in giving us access to Iranian facilities that we never had before, then he should tell us what his alternative would be. But it’s like his plan to defeat ISIS. He says it’s a secret plan, but the only secret is that he has no plan.
So we need to be more precise in how we talk about these issues. People around the word follow our presidential campaigns so closely, trying to get hints about what we will do. Can they rely on us? Are we going to lead the world with strength and in accordance with our values? That’s what I intend to do. I intend to be a leader of our country that people can count on, both here at home and around the world, to make decisions that will further peace and prosperity, but also stand up to bullies, whether they’re abroad or at home.
We cannot let those who would try to destabilize the world to interfere with American interests and security…
HOLT: Your two minutes is…
CLINTON: … to be given any opportunities at all.
HOLT: … is expired.
TRUMP: Lester, one thing I’d like to say.
HOLT: Very quickly. Twenty seconds.
TRUMP: I will go very quickly. But I will tell you that Hillary will tell you to go to her website and read all about how to defeat ISIS, which she could have defeated by never having it, you know, get going in the first place. Right now, it’s getting tougher and tougher to defeat them, because they’re in more and more places, more and more states, more and more nations.
HOLT: Mr. Trump…
TRUMP: And it’s a big problem. And as far as Japan is concerned, I want to help all of our allies, but we are losing billions and billions of dollars. We cannot be the policemen of the world. We cannot protect countries all over the world…
HOLT: We have just…
TRUMP: … where they’re not paying us what we need.
HOLT: We have just a few final questions…
TRUMP: And she doesn’t say that, because she’s got no business ability. We need heart. We need a lot of things. But you have to have some basic ability. And sadly, she doesn’t have that. All of the things that she’s talking about could have been taken care of during the last 10 years, let’s say, while she had great power. But they weren’t taken care of. And if she ever wins this race, they won’t be taken care of.