When Hillary Clinton faces off against Donald Trump in Monday’s debate, security issues will be high on the agenda.
In a year when terrorism dominates headlines, this issue is crucial. In a rational world, Clinton would dominate, given her broad experience and his ferocious display of ignorance.
Yet the public seems strangely split on her security chops, giving her only a narrow 1 to 3 percent edge over Trump in mid-September polls on handling terrorism and homeland security.
Perhaps that’s because Trump’s brash talk (minus any specifics) about instantly crushing the Islamic State has popular appeal when lone wolves set off bombs in American suburbs. It may be because Clinton has failed to convey an image of a leader who is tougher than President Obama yet free from the hollow aggressiveness of Trump.
The good news for Clinton (and America) is that the public does seem to grasp the danger of letting a man of Trump’s mercurial temperament command our forces or have his finger on the nuclear button. A CNN poll released Sept. 20 showed a 51 percent to 25 percent preference for Clinton when it comes to being in charge of nuclear weapons and gave her a similar margin for being a good commander in chief (50 to 39 percent). Recent polls also hand her a substantial edge on handling foreign policy in general.
So why is the margin so close on dealing with terrorism and national security?
It’s not so surprising that, in this rapidly changing world, even many Americans yearn for a strongman. And Trump appeals to voters who believe Obama has left the country more vulnerable.
However, despite years in the public eye, Clinton’s image as a foreign policy leader is still blurry. Never mind her constant references to her role in the Bin Laden raid. She seems unable to define herself as hawk, dove, or in between.
During the 2008 primary, Clinton advocated a more muscular approach to foreign policy – and diplomacy – than did Obama. But as secretary of state, she was consistently overruled by the White House, notably her push to arm moderate Syrian rebels in 2012.
These days, however, Clinton clearly feels she must downplay her onetime image as Hillary Hawk in order to woo Obama supporters – and Berniacs. She has tamped down some of her internationalist positions, for example on trade, for the same reasons.
Meantime, Trump thumps on her vote for the Iraq war (which he also supported, despite lies to the contrary) in hopes of picking off some of those same Bernie supporters. Clinton responds by saying she would “never again” send ground troops to Iraq.
Yet a look at Clinton’s foreign policy positions past and present indicates she would be a more forward-leaning leader on the world stage than Obama, while displaying none of the recklessness of the Donald.
Yes, Clinton pushed Obama to back the Libyan adventure, which turned out badly. Yet that case is far from black and white. Arab and European allies pressed America to stop a prospective slaughter that would have sent a tsunami of refugees fleeing to Europe and Arab countries. True, things didn’t work as expected. But reckless, Clinton is not.
On the other hand, although Trump portrays himself as “Mr. Tough,” he is really an isolationist whose loose lips could provoke a war he never intended. He talks carelessly of abandoning key U.S. ties with NATO and Asian allies and starting global trade wars. This would weaken America, even as a nationalist Russia and China seek to expand their reach and undermine U.S. interests. Trump is clueless in his flattery of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping and his assumption that he could make them swallow his “deals.”
Clinton, on the other hand, wants to strengthen America’s alliances in Europe and Asia. Contrary to the rap on her Russian “reset,” she recognized early on that Putin only understood strength and recognized bluffing. For example, in Syria in 2012, she argued – along with Obama’s other top security officials – that the Russian leader would never press Damascus to end to the conflict unless Washington strengthened moderate rebels. Obama demurred.
She has also showed her chops as a tough negotiator, putting together the international sanctions that forced Iran to the negotiating table. She has pledged to firmly hold Tehran to every detail of the deal, unlike the White House, which has permitted the Iranians to take advantage of loopholes. As for Trump, he wants to scuttle the Iran deal, which would permit Iran to rush right up to the nuclear threshold – thus confronting Americans with the prospect of another Middle East war.
Which brings us to the challenge of terrorism. Clinton sounds bureaucratic when she talks of strengthening security in American communities and involving local Muslim Americans in the process. Trump alienates those communities with outlandish proposals like profiling all Muslims. In the long run. Clinton is on the right track.
Of course, her foreign policy record isn’t flawless. Her staff choices have not always been wise. But she has a strong bench to choose from, unlike Trump, who has no foreign policy team at all and believes he doesn’t need one.
If she can break through Trumpian barbs and blather, Clinton could convey an image of a woman who can conduct tough diplomacy but project a credible threat of force – as a last resort, if needed. And not just drones.
In the upcoming debates, she needs to project an image of a strong, capable, responsible foreign policy leader – in contrast to Trump’s bombast. That is the territory she must claim for herself.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer, firstname.lastname@example.org.