On Wednesday night, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRepublican Ohio Senate candidate slams JD Vance over previous Trump comments Budowsky: Why GOP donors flock to Manchin and Sinema Countering the ongoing Republican delusion MORE and Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBiden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package Trump calls Milley a 'f---ing idiot' over Afghanistan withdrawal First rally for far-right French candidate Zemmour prompts protests, violence MORE, the respective Democratic and Republican candidates, each took a half hour in a town-hall format to discuss their plans for national defense. "Today" show host Matt Lauer moderated, and he and military veterans in the audience provided the questions.
My conclusion is that neither Clinton nor Trump is capable of being the kind of commander in chief this country needs. Would one be better than the other? It's anybody's guess as to whether someone who has repeatedly shown poor judgment and has a seriously limited understanding of our military is preferable to someone who is a wild card and probably has no understanding of the issue. Neither was asked anything particularly challenging, and neither provided any real insight into solving any of the real problems that need to be addressed. Instead, they palpably strained against following Lauer's admonition not to attack each other, and both failed in this regard to some degree.
It is no coincidence that the last president to show insight into military affairs, George Herbert Walker Bush, was also the last president with a significant service record. Over the last quarter century, our politicians have transformed our most respected institution into an all-purpose cleaning service that must pick up the trash strewn about by executive and legislative branches which provide knee-jerk responses to foreign policy problems of which they have little or no understanding.
Of course, the problems don't end there.
Military funding under sequestration is constantly blamed for a force that is too small, short on preparedness and scrounging to afford new weapons systems. The real problem is a procurement system that is out of control, with programs wildly overbudget and years late in completion. Pentagon money managers have exacerbated the confusion in their accounts by refusing to provide congressionally mandated audit statements, making Defense the only noncompliant member of the executive branch. For the generals and admirals, new toys are always the priority, even though troops on the ground are still using rather crappy Vietnam-era small arms, and 20 veterans a day are committing suicide for lack of healthcare dollars. The politicians restrict their interest to the requisite jobs in their respective districts, regardless of budget overruns, or whether a specific weapons system still has strategic currency by the time it's finished.
The Pentagon is itself another major obstacle. Secretaries of Defense under our last three presidents have not shown the ability to seriously reform or improve processes within the department. Senior military officers have done even worse, lying repeatedly in front of congressional committees about progress in fighting our nation's two longest wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, something easily corroborated by interviewing troops in the field. Most glaring is the pipedream that we've trained up Afghan and Iraqi troops to the necessary standards, an overestimation borne out by their performance in the field.
Meanwhile, our troops are, in a way, their own worst enemy. They are so superb that they have made it easy for civilian officials to take a facile and witless approach to foreign policy, because they think they can always send in our reliable boys and girls to salvage the situation. It is these men and women in uniform, and the civil servants who support them, who deserve all our trust and praise, and not the most senior officers and political appointees who manage them.
Space limits the discussion of numerous other problems, and what does any of this have to do with Wednesday's town hall? The making of war is the most complex of all human activities, and running the Department of Defense, with its roughly 2 million people in and out of uniform, is its own nightmare. The level of person with even a prayer of making sense out of any of it would need acute judgment, common sense and a vast intellect seasoned by personal familiarity with military operations.
Demonstrating the presence of such a person would have required questioning a little more incisive than Lauer's boilerplate questions. (Why didn't Jim Miklaszewski, NBC's Pentagon correspondent, conduct the questioning?) There haven't been many such defense experts around lately in either the White House or Congress, and there certainly weren't any on display Wednesday night.
Blady, M.D., is a former program officer for the undersecretary of Defense for policy and senior analyst for the undersecretary of Defense for intelligence.
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