Donald Trump derided Hillary Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy record over the weekend, a glimpse into a potential general election strategy of casting Clinton as the more likely of the two to take the nation to war.
Just moments after maligning Syrian refugees at a rally in Lynden, Washington, Trump pivoted into a tirade against Clinton as a warmonger.
“On foreign policy, Hillary is trigger happy,” Trump told the crowd. “She is, she’s trigger happy. She’s got a bad temperament,” he said. “Her decisions in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya have cost trillions of dollars, thousands of lives and have totally unleashed ISIS.”
And he expressed a rarely heard appreciation for the “other side to this story,” noting: “Thousands of lives, yes, for us, but probably millions of lives in all fairness, folks” for the people of the Middle East.
Trump implied that casualties inflicted by the U.S. military were far higher than reported. “They bomb a city” and “it’s obliterated, obliterated,” he said. “They’ll say nobody was killed. I’ll bet you thousands and thousands of people were killed every time you see that television set.”
“If we would’ve done nothing,” Trump argued, “we would’ve been in much better shape.”
Clinton has made herself vulnerable to this kind of criticism. She did in fact enthusiastically vote for the Iraq War. She also spearheaded the Obama administration’s overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, now supports a “no-fly zone” in Syria, and has aligned herself with Gulf State monarchies and Israel’s extremist right-wing leadership.
And yet, unlike most everything else he says, Trump’s attack on Clinton’s war record garnered remarkably little media coverage, despite representing a significant break from the traditional foreign policy dichotomy between the two parties, one that’s been building since Trump entered the race.
Of course, Trump is hardly the candidate of peace. Nor is he a credible messenger.
He’s advocated for killing the families of terrorists, endorses torture, and in his tirade against Clinton, he applauded Saddam Hussein for executing people without trial, saying, “He used to kill [terrorists] instantaneously. … They didn’t go through 15 years of a court case.”
And at the Washington state rally, Trump contrasted Clinton’s vote for the war in Iraq with what he claimed was his own opposition. “I voted against it except I was a civilian so nobody cared,” he said. “From the beginning I said it’s gonna destabilize the Middle East and Iran will take over Iraq.”
But as BuzzFeed reported recently, Trump did not oppose the invasion at the time; his support was “totally unambiguous.”
Trump’s isolationist posturing, however dubious it might be, has triggered a neoconservative flight from the presumptive Republican ticket while repositioning the Democrats, if led by Clinton, as the war party.
After spending the last several months casting herself as a progressive to compete with Bernie Sanders, Clinton now appears to be recalibrating to appeal to disaffected Republicans.
Clinton’s supporters, for example, are tapping Bush family megadonors for campaign cash.
And the Clinton campaign is proudly boasting a growing list, constantly updated, of establishment Republicans who have either refused to vote for Trump or have openly defected to Clinton.
Neoconservatives feature prominently on this list, including the Daily Caller’s Jamie Weinstein, Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, Iraq war architect Elliott Abrams, and Republican foreign policy adviser Max Boot. (Boot officially endorsed Clinton on Sunday.)
As Weinstein wrote in his endorsement of Clinton: “Despite his bombastic rhetoric about ‘bomb[ing] the hell’ out of ISIS, Trump has mainly articulated a ‘come home America’ non-interventionist foreign policy.” He added: “For all Hillary Clinton’s many, many domestic and foreign policy faults and failures, she has not proposed dismantling the national security infrastructure America has built up since World War II or initiating destructive trade wars.”
Secretary of State John Kerry, delivering a commencement address at Northeastern University, alluded to Trump’s flirtation with isolationism, telling the new graduates, “When you consider the range of challenges that the world is struggling with, most countries don’t lie awake at night worrying about America’s presence; they worry about what would happen in our absence.”
Available data suggests Kerry actually has it backward. According to a 2014 WIN/Gallup poll of more than 66,000 people in 65 nations, the U.S. is viewed as the greatest threat to world peace.
Nevertheless, the myth of America as an indispensable superpower burdened with the task of leading the world to prosperity, through force if necessary, has long dominated the thinking of political elites across the ideological spectrum. Republicans have represented the more militaristic extreme. Today it’s not so clear.
“Donald Trump will be running to the left as we understand it against Hillary Clinton on national security issues,” Republican strategist Steve Schmidt said on MSNBC last week. “And the candidate in the race most like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney from a foreign policy perspective is in fact Hillary Clinton, not the Republican nominee.”