It’s Clinton’s Foreign Policy, Not Trump’s That’s Reckless

Stewart Lawrence Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.
Font Size:

The media hoopla that surrounded Hillary Clinton’s recent foreign policy speech attacking Donald Trump can scarcely mask the desperation she must feel about Trump’s political chances against her in the fall election. 

How to bring Trump down when white men overwhelmingly support him more than 2-1 and even white women continue to tilt in his direction?   

She’s already tried the “gender card” strategy, but dropped it after her own internal polling revealed that it wasn’t resonating with female voters. Trump has a strong track record hiring and promoting women and he’s even matching or beating Clinton among white women in most recent polls.

So Clinton’s shifted to a different strategy. She’s trying to turn the GOP’s traditional advantage on national security against its 2016 standard-bearer. He’s so reckless and unstable he could start a war out of sheer anger, she said in her recent speech.  And with access to the nuclear codes, he might even decide to blow up the world, she implied.

Democrats famously employed this same strategy against Barry Goldwater in 1964. During the campaign, President Lyndon Johnson ran a highly inflammatory political commercial – the “Daisy” ad – which implied that a Goldwater victory would trigger a nuclear holocaust. Many believe the ad succeeded in scaring independent voters – and even some Republicans — into supporting LBJ.

But will the same approach work against Trump? It’s not likely.  

First, Johnson, unlike Clinton, had inherited the mantle of a slain president. America was still grieving and he enjoyed the nation’s gratitude. His favorability ratings were sky high. The United States was just beginning to get deeply involved in the Vietnam War — but had not yet sent in troops. People generally believed in and trusted LBJ.

Goldwater, by contrast, was considered an extreme conservative, much like Ted Cruz. Unlike Trump, he made no serious attempt to appeal to moderates. He opposed social programs and wanted to abolish Social Security. He favored a dramatic escalation of the Vietnam War. His VP even recommended “bombing the Vietnamese back to the Stone Age.”  

Goldwater never had a serious shot at the nomination, and LBJ beat him in a huge landslide.

It’s true that Trump has promised to “bomb the [crap] out of Isis.” He’s also refused to take the nuclear option off the table. It’s these stances that have allowed Clinton to suggest that Trump might somehow resemble Goldwater.

But it’s a red herring. Not taking the nuclear option off the table is simply prudent foreign policy. It doesn’t suggest a willingness to use nuclear weapons. Both parties traditionally say no option is off the table. It’s the way we leverage our strength in foreign policy. Clinton knows this, and wouldn’t take the nuclear option off the table, either.

In fact, Clinton has already proven herself to be the far more bellicose candidate. She supported the Iraq war and pushed Obama into the Libya invasion. Trump opposed both interventions. She favors an unqualified embrace of Israel, which has its own ambitions in the Middle East. Trump calls for greater “balance” in our relations with the Middle East.  

More broadly, Trump is advocating an “America First” strategy that scales back U.S. interventionism. Clinton is a proponent of a liberal version of neoconservatism, which says the U.S. must police the world and support the overthrow of unsavory regimes. For example, it must support a provocative “no-fly” strategy to isolate and defeat Assad in Syria, possibly provoking a wider war with Russia.   

Of course, these are precisely the kinds of policies that get American into trouble, leading to costly ground troop invasions and massive deaths and casualties to troops and civilians alike.

Clinton is no Goldwater, of course, but the point is, neither is Trump — far from it.  Of the two, Clinton is advocating a far more activist and adventurist and inherently risky foreign policy.  Voters should well ask themselves who, of the two, is more dangerous and reckless.

Goldwater never would have supported Trump’s restrained approach to the use of American military power.   He was perfectly willing to escalate the Vietnam War, even if it meant using nuclear weapons — a position that even LBJ later considered, as the war continued to escalate.

Clinton won’t advocate using nuclear weapons but by coddling regimes like Iran that seek nuclear capabilities couldn’t it one day come to that?   Do we really want her hand on the nuclear button?

For the time being, Clinton may well get away with her depiction of Trump as a dangerously unstable leader.  The so-called “security Moms” that tilted toward George W. Bush in 2004, because they felt he would keep them safer in a hostile world, could start to wonder about Trump.  That’s what the former Secretary of State is counting on – especially with disaffected women.

But once the two candidates get to the debates and are pressed to defend their actual positions and records, it will be hard to for Clinton to stigmatize Trump as an out-of-control “mad bomber.”

More likely, sensible voters – women and men alike — will wonder what foreign or defense policy success Clinton can point to anywhere in the globe to justify installing her in the White House as Commander-in-Chief.