“I’m the most militaristic person there is,” Donald Trump boldy bragged upon his return to Fox News Tuesday morning, after the clown-car wreck of last week’s Republican primary debate.
You have to give a certain amount of leeway to a guy whose normal patter consists of egomaniacal proclamations like: “all of the women on ‘The Apprentice’ flirted with me… that’s to be expected;” ”I’m, like, a really smart person;” and, ”I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created.” He’s the old-money version of Kenny Powers, and it goes with the territory.
But “most militaristic?” Even for the Donald, this is a boast that goes a bit too far. In the 2016 election cycle, the “serious and responsible” candidates for the presidency are so bellicose they make Trump look Cindy Sheehan. He can’t even compete with the current Democratic president or the most likely Democratic nominee.
The Dems: ‘I Urged Him to Bomb’
Barack Obama still enjoys an unearned reputation as a reluctant warrior, but by December 2009, when he hit the dais in Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama had already launched more drone strikes than “war president” George W. Bush managed during two full terms. Since then, “44” has racked up nearly nine times as many drone attacks as “43,” launched two undeclared wars, and—as Obama bragged in last week’s speech defending the Iran deal—bombed no fewer than seven countries. He was being uncharacteristically modest, however: the number is actually eight.
For her part, the leading Democratic contender has rarely met a war she didn’t love. From First Lady to Senator and then to Secretary of State, the running theme of Hillary Clinton’s ghoulish career has been “I urged him to bomb.” That’s how HRC described the March 1999 phone conversation in which she ended eight months of post-Lewinsky silent treatment to tell her husband that, if he knew what was good for him, he’d attack Serbia. Monicagate had been pretty rough on their marriage, but a shared love of airstrikes got Hill and Bill talking again. As they say, the family that slays together stays together.
In 2011, Hillary urged President Obama to bomb Libya. That hasn’t worked out so well for Libya, but at least it gave the then-Secretary of State the opportunity for a classic Schwarzenegger-style sendoff. Upon hearing that Qaddafi had been killed by a rebel mob, Clinton cracked, “we came, we saw, he died.“ That’s pretty hardcore—especially when you consider that Colonel Q. slipped this mortal coil while being sodomized with a combat knife. The best Trump could do at the time was brag how, this one time, he bilked Qaddafi on a real estate deal.
The GOP: ‘Quien Es el Mas Militarista?’
When it comes to the GOP race, the Donald can’t begin to match his competitors in warmongering bluster. “Most militaristic?” In this field? These guys have blood coming out of their eyeballs, blood even coming out of their… wherevers.
Can Trump really tell us with a straight face that he’s more belligerent than Senator Lindsey Graham, who’s said he would “literally use the military” to keep Congress in session until they approve more military spending? Graham further proclaimed that “if I’m president of the United States and you’re thinking about joining al-Qaeda or ISIL, I’m not gonna call a judge, I’m gonna call a drone and we will kill you.” Would Trump do the same?
Can Trump out-hawk Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who in June, refused a reporter’s invitation to rule out “a full-blown re-invasion of Iraq,” and in July, announced that he’d “very possibly” need to start bombing Iran on his first day in office? Come on. Walker’s informal advisor and one time Iranian hostage Kevin Hermening, who serves as the “face of Walker’s foreign policy,” has even called for a “massive military response” to 9/11 “that includes the destruction of the capitals of Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, and Yemen,” possibly with nuclear weapons. Is that in the Donald’s “secret plan” to defeat ISIS?
And does the Donald expect us to believe he can get around Marco Rubio’s right flank on militarism? Good luck, Mr. Trump: the Florida senator stands out among his competitors as the sole Republican to argue that Obama’s real mistake in Libya was that he didn’t start bombing even sooner. Rubio wants to double down on the profligate interventionism of the George W. Bush era so badly that he’s built his campaign on B-movie slogans and neocon buzzwords. A Liam-Neeson style “we will find you; and we will kill you” message to ISIS has his characterized his platform, and his website promises “A New American Century,” –a pledge that ought to give pause to anybody old enough to remember how that worked out in the last decade.
“I was not a fan of going to Iraq,” Trump said recently on “Fox and Friends.” “I was totally against it.” And in his June speech announcing his candidacy, Trump hit Rubio for his evasiveness on that issue: “Is Iraq a good thing or a bad thing? He couldn’t answer the question. How are these people going to lead us?”
But Rubio knows the score: if you want to win the GOP nomination, you don’t admit that the biggest foreign policy disaster in a generation was a mistake until your interrogators leave you with no other option. And even if you cave under enhanced interrogation, you recant the first chance you get, as Jeb Bush did at a campaign event this week: “taking out Saddam Hussein turned out to be a pretty good deal,” all in all.
In fact, the Republican establishment is so hell-bent on militarism that when Jeb wanted to hire a seemingly sensible foreign policy director—who cautioned against a military strike on Iran and urged the GOP to rediscover its roots of pragmatism and containment—the powers that be put the kibosh on it, tout suite. It’s perfectly OK, apparently, that Iraq War architect Paul Wolfowitz has Jeb’s ear.
Just when did being the biggest militarist in the room become something to strive for—and much less brag about? Republicans love to drape themselves in the mantle of the Founding Fathers, but they’re not getting this from Ben Franklin, who called the army “a devouring monster,” or George Washington, who warned that “overgrown military establishments… under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty.” James Madison believed that “of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other”—among them being “debts and taxes,” an expansion in “the discretionary power of the executive,” and “the degeneracy of manners and morals.”
It’s even stranger to imagine that promiscuous war-making is a conservative virtue. There was a time when leading intellectuals on the Right recognized that war is a government program, and an especially destructive one at that. In 1967, Russell Kirk praised the late Senator Robert A. Taft—also known as “Mr. Conservative”—for insisting that “that every other possibility must be exhausted before resort to military action,” because war would “make the American President a virtual dictator… contract civil liberties, injure the habitual self-reliance and self-government of the American people, distort the economy, sink the federal government in debt, [and] break in upon private and public morality.” In “aspiring to redeem the world from all the ills to which flesh is heir, Americans might descend, instead, into a leaden imperial domination and corruption.”
Look, the handwringers are right: the Donald is a clown, a boor, and a con man. But on this issue, in this field, he’s not quite the embarrassment he should be. The conservative movement was drunk on militarism long before Trump crashed the party. It’s well past time to sober up.