The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

Hillary Clinton's National Security Speech Was a Grim Preview of How Shitty This Election Will Be

The former secretary of state's big foreign policy message is that she's not Donald Trump.

by Harry Cheadle
Jun 3 2016, 2:00am

Hillary Clinton giving a national security speech on Thursday in San Diego. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Earlier this week, Hillary Clinton's campaign promised that she would deliver a major national security speech in San Diego on Thursday. She did, and it turns out her major foreign policy message is that she is not Donald Trump.

Of course, Clinton is not yet officially the Democratic nominee for president—there are still several primaries being held next Tuesday, the biggest of which will go down in California. But in her address to supporters there Thursday morning, she was clearly anticipating the general election fight, presenting the contest as a stark choice—not between isolationism and interventionism, or other competing schools of international relations thought, but between her own hard-earned competence and Trump's rank amateurism.

"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," Clinton declared. "He's not just unprepared. He's temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability, and immense responsibility."

Clinton did outline some of her foreign policy views when she described what would happen if the United States withdrew from the world stage. "If America doesn't lead," she told the crowd, "we leave a vacuum, and that will either cause chaos, or other countries will rush in to fill the void." And she praised President Barack Obama's agreement with Iran, concluding, "We are safer now than we were before this agreement. And we accomplished it without firing a single shot."

But this wasn't a speech about America's place in the world or about Clinton's own role in crafting the country's foreign policy. Instead, the former secretary of state ticked off a list of inflammatory remarks Trump has made. That included his statements about how more countries, including Saudi Arabia, should acquire nukes; his lines about how the US should torture suspected terrorists and "go after" their families; his contention that America should consider pulling out of NATO; his apparent flirtation with the idea the US could default on its debt; his praise for antidemocratic regimes in Russia and China—the list goes on.

Imagine someone like that in the situation room or sending troops to fight wars, Clinton asked her audience. "Imagine if he had not just his Twitter account at his disposal when he's angry, but America's entire arsenal."

She's far from the first person to observe that Trump has spent the last several months talking out of his ass about foreign policy. As Tim Mak in the Daily Beast pointed out, Trump's 2016 primary challenger Marco Rubio attacked the real estate heir using practically the same words. Still, for voters nervous about Trump's total lack of knowledge on this ostensibly crucial topic, Clinton's rhetorical assault was a scorched-earth victory.

Unfortunately, Clinton doesn't have Trump's gift for insults or Obama's comedic instincts. When she throws out lines like "it's not hard to imagine Donald Trump leading us into a war because someone got under his very thin skin," it comes off a little flat, like the kind of burn your mom might write. She's running as the adult in this race, but you can't be an adult and win a game of the dozens.

The other problem for Clinton is that while the Foreign Policy Establishment tends to already see Trump as a dangerous loon, voters don't necessarily agree. A Gallup poll released Thursday found that on the issues that voters care most about—the economy, employment, and national security—respondents trust Trump more than they do Clinton. The poll also shows that the former secretary of state beats Trump overwhelmingly on the question of who voters trust to handle foreign affairs—but voters are far less interested in that as a campaign issue.

That voters don't care about foreign policy is by now an old trope, but candidates usually make speeches about it because it is a big part of the job they're vying for. This time round, though, Trump's apparent lack of interest in the subject has hamstrung what little chance there was for an election debate about, say, the wisdom of overthrowing Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, or of the US's unwavering support for Israel.

Instead, Clinton's argument on nearly every issue, from war to jobs to diplomacy, is going to be that Trump is terrible. Trump's counterargument is predictable: No, actually Clinton is the one who is terrible, and Trump is great. America!

"We all know the tools Donald Trump brings to the table: bragging, mocking, composing nasty tweets—I'm willing to bet he's composing a few right now—but those tools won't do the trick," Clinton said Thursday. The problem is, those tools might be enough to win an election that's just a schoolyard fight.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.

election 2016
Hillary Clinton
Donald Trump
national security
foreign policy
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