Hillary Clinton’s speech in California on Thursday dissecting Donald Trump’s foreign policy was arguably the best speech of her campaign, if not her career. For one thing, she was relaxed, obviously enjoying going after Trump and his harebrained ideas.
The speech was more about him than her, as her team had previewed. Collecting specifics from his months of foreign policy blather and inanities, she made the case he is an ignoramus, a dangerous one. “Donald Trump’s ideas aren’t just different - they are dangerously incoherent. They’re not even really ideas - just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds and outright lies,” she said. “He is not just unprepared - he is temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability and immense responsibility.”
Getting right to the point she declared, “This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes - because it’s not hard to imagine Donald Trump leading us into a war just because somebody got under his very thin skin.” All that was missing was the famous Daisy ad.
She ticked off a list of his scary notions:
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This is a man who said that more countries should have nuclear weapons, including Saudi Arabia.
“This is someone who has threatened to abandon our allies in NATO - the countries that work with us to root out terrorists abroad before they strike us at home.
“He believes we can treat the U.S. economy like one of his casinos and default on our debts to the rest of the world, which would cause an economic catastrophe far worse than anything we experienced in 2008.
“He has said that he would order our military to carry out torture and the murder of civilians who are related to suspected terrorists - even though those are war crimes.
“He says he doesn’t have to listen to our generals or our admirals, our ambassadors and other high officials, because he has - quote - ‘a very good brain.’
He also said, ‘I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me.’ You know what? I don’t believe him.”
She aptly captured the dangerous combination of ignorance, instability and lack of impulse control that we’ve come to see in Trump time and again. (”He praises dictators like Vladimir Putin and picks fights with our friends — including the British prime minister, the mayor of London, the German chancellor, the president of Mexico and the Pope,” she recalled. “He says he has foreign policy experience because he ran the Miss Universe pageant in Russia.”)
She also pointed to his creepy affection for dictators: “I don’t understand Donald’s bizarre fascination with dictators and strongmen who have no love for America. He praised China for the Tiananmen Square massacre; he said it showed strength,” she said, adding, “Now, I’ll leave it to the psychiatrists to explain his affection for tyrants.”
As to her description of her own policies, many Americans will disagree with her assertion that the Iran deal left the U.S. safer than before we gave the mullahs $100 billion and a pathway to nuclear breakout. We, and others, recognized that her speech avoided discussion of the military funding, as if a foreign policy including a plan to defeat the Islamic State does not need a robust military as its foundation.
She is no Jeb Bush or Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., to be sure. She is a Democrat in a party moving steadily left. We are left to hope she will act on her past assertions that we must be more proactive in checking Iran’s regional aggression, missile tests and human rights abuses. (As for bolstering the military budget, that will no doubt require a strong push from Congress, requiring that Republicans hold the majorities in the House and Senate.)
Certainly this speech had a more centrist, hawkish tone than what we have heard from the president for seven years. In defending our alliances as essential to national security she implicitly rejected both President Barack Obama’s and Trump’s griping about free riders. “Yes, our friends need to contribute their fair share. I made that point long before Donald Trump came onto the scene - and a number of them have increased their defense spending,” she said. “The real debate here is whether we keep these alliances strong or cut them off. What he says would weaken our country.”
She also spoke in favor of using all the tools available to us (diplomatic, economic and, when needed, military). For example, she said: “The world must understand that the United States will act decisively if necessary, including with military action, to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. In particular, Israel’s security is non-negotiable. They’re our closest ally in the region, and we have a moral obligation to defend them.” And she likewise made clear that “we need to be firm but wise with our rivals.”
Most striking she sounded serious, not dismissive as the president has been about defeating the Islamic State:
“As we saw six months ago in San Bernardino, the threat is real and urgent. Over the past year, I’ve laid out my plans for defeating ISIS.
“We need to take out their strongholds in Iraq and Syria by intensifying the air campaign and stepping up our support for Arab and Kurdish forces on the ground. We need to keep pursuing diplomacy to end Syria’s civil war and close Iraq’s sectarian divide, because those conflicts are keeping ISIS alive. We need to lash up with our allies, and ensure our intelligence services are working hand-in-hand to dismantle the global network that supplies money, arms, propaganda and fighters to the terrorists. We need to win the battle in cyberspace. And of course we need to strengthen our defenses here at home.”
Finally, she made the case effectively that Trump’s noxious language harms us around the globe:
“It matters when he says he’ll order our military to murder the families of suspected terrorists. During the raid to kill bin Laden, when every second counted, our SEALs took the time to move the women and children in the compound to safety. Donald Trump may not get it, but that’s what honor looks like.
“And it also matters when he makes fun of disabled people, calls women pigs, proposes banning an entire religion from our country, or plays coy with white supremacists. America stands up to countries that treat women like animals, or people of different races, religions or ethnicities as less human.
“What happens to the moral example we set — for the world and for our own children — if our president engages in bigotry?
“And by the way, Mr. Trump: E very time you insult American Muslims or Mexican immigrants, remember that plenty of Muslims and immigrants serve and fight in our armed forces.”
That’s a point too infrequently made in the GOP primary.
The devil is always in the details in foreign policy, and we know all too well from the Obama years that rhetoric may not always match action. That said, this was a centrist speech within the parameters of bipartisan foreign policy we have heard for 70 years, a foreign policy dependent on U.S. power and one which has upheld the small “l” liberal world order, avoided nuclear war, brought a billion people out of poverty internationally and increased our own security and standard of living.
In reminding us foreign policy is hard and many crises are never discussed or anticipated in a campaign, she certainly made one think about the sort of person we want making the tough calls on issues we never imagined. (”Making the right call takes a cool head and respect for the facts. It takes a willingness to listen to other people’s points of view with a truly open mind. It also takes humility — knowing you don’t know everything — because if you’re convinced you’re always right, you’ll never ask yourself the hard questions.”)
In sum, her purpose was to paint Trump as a menace to the country and herself as an experienced, sober leader. She succeeded entirely with the former, and to the surprise of many of her critics, made a strong argument for the latter. That should be of comfort to the millions of Republicans and independents who cannot bring themselves to vote for Trump.