Troops based at the Pentagon watched Monday’s presidential debate—and grimaced. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump discussed the final days of the war in Iraq, the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and NATO in largely simplified terms. But in the hallways of the Pentagon, those black-and-white depictions didn’t match the thorny global security issues as they saw them—far more complex and in the grey.
And when the candidates weren’t mangling issues, they planted themselves in fantasy worlds.
Take Trump’s assertion that his temperament was best suited for the job. That really captured the military’s attention, particularly at the Pentagon, which is filled with commanders who rose through the ranks, in part, because of their perceived temperament on the battlefield.
“I can’t believe he said he had the right temperament to be president while yelling. I’ve seen better in basic training,” a soldier concluded.
And with that, the one Washington institution that was supposed to be insulated from the 2016 election threw itself into the fray, all through personal experiences and recollections.
Trump’s suggestion Monday that the U.S. should have snatched Iraqi oil after the 2003 invasion had eyes popping in the Pentagon. So many currently serving here were deployed to Iraq in the early days of the invasion, and remember their orders at that time. Many noted that the U.S. had said it went to Iraq to spread democracy, not steal oil.
“Remember when people were mad at us for protecting the Ministry of Oil [in the early days of the war] because they said were there for the oil? Now we should have stolen it?” one colonel noted.
Then there was Trump’s ongoing embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin—even as the U.S. and Russia are battling each other in Syria through local proxy forces. Relations are increasingly tense between the two states amid failed ceasefires and growing distrust.
On “the cyber,” as Trump referred to cybersecurity Tuesday, the Republican presidential candidate offered a rambling answer, saying that a “400-pound” individual might have hacked Democratic Party—and not Russian operations, as the U.S. intelligence community has concluded.
Trump’s response elicited a silent shaking of the head from one commander who works cybersecurity.
Other concerns from the troops were more subtle. Trump assailed Clinton and President Obama for withdrawing all remaining U.S. troops in Iraq at the end of the 2011, as part of a status of forces agreement between the U.S. and Iraq. Trump said it was foolhardy for Obama to announce the withdraw date and that is led to subsequent “disaster.”
Meanwhile, Clinton noted that President Bush, not Obama, said set the withdrawal date and the terms. And she noted that the Iraqis would not give U.S. troops immunity from prosecution, making signing another SOFA, and keeping troops in Iraq, impossible.
But many who served, and remember the tense weeks both before the first SOFA and in the lead up to the withdrawal two years later, said both candidates left out key details. It was Bush who set the terms of the 2011 withdrawal—including the announced withdrawal date.
For her part, Clinton never mentioned that SOFAs can always be renegotiated—and frequently are. And while then-Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would not give U.S. personnel immunity, which the administration said ended SOFA talks, there are other ways to protect troops, like diplomatic notes—agreements between states that promise immunity. The Obama administration secured such a note in 2014 to send U.S. troops and advisers back into Iraq to confront ISIS.
“How the hell else would we have 5,000 troops there now?” one exasperated Army commander asked when he as he and his colleagues debated the debate, citing the diplomatic note. The withdrawal date was imbued with politics. “We left when we did so the president could say he ended the war” by the 2012 election.
“We are the last people to propose announcing a withdrawal date,” he continued.
In other words: both Bush and Obama played a role in the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. At least that is how the commanders remember it.
Some in the military were annoyed by how the candidates described solutions for current security threats, like ISIS.
In her anti-ISIS strategy, Clinton said she would “do everything possible to take out their leadership,” noting the U.S. has taken out much of al Qaeda’s leadership. She stressed that she would target Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. But to some in the Pentagon, which is filled with drone operators, pilots and ground commanders who in the last 13 years have killed too many jihadi leaders to count, the approach sounded anachronistic.
The military no longer talks about how a key leader, or even a major battle, will end a jihadi movement but rather how, whoever is killed, the virtual caliphate will still pose a threat. Therefore, rather than just kill leaders, defeating ISIS demands political solutions on the ground.
“What we're really addressing now is what has to be done to disrupt the physical caliphate and bring defeat to the physical caliphate, which of course, is only half of the job,” Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters during a July briefing.
At one point, Trump told Clinton that she had been “fighting ISIS your entire adult life,” even though the terror group has been around formally for only three years. Perhaps the charge that ISIS has been around for decades stung worst for commanders who has been confronting jihadi terrorism longer, and more directly, than Clinton has.
“Sometimes it feels like a lifetime,” one Army colonel dryly replied to Trump’s charge.
Clinton also said that “we’re hoping that within the year we’ll be able to push ISIS out of Iraq and then, you know, really squeeze them in Syria.” But no major leader in the Pentagon has been that publicly optimistic. Moreover, privately many don’t believe the U.S. can determine that, but rather the Iraqi government and military. At best, they hope a substantially weaker ISIS will exist in Iraq but no one is willing to say Iraq will be free of ISIS.
The defeat of ISIS “is not up to us. It is up to the Iraqis,” one commander explained. “And by the way, we are going after Baghdadi now. We are not waiting.”
Trump also had his own unconventional ideas about defeating ISIS. Trump, for example, said that sales from illegal oil sales in Iraq allowed ISIS to expand. The illegal sale of oil has never been the sole source of revenue for ISIS. Instead the terror group has depended on taxing residents in the cities they capture and theft for revenue.
At their financial peak, analysts at the RAND Corporation concluded that ISIS collected $875 million in 2014 from extortion and taxes, compared to $100 million in oil sales. Robbing banks garnered another $500 million, RAND concluded.
In February 2015, the Pentagon declared that oil is no longer the “main source” of ISIS revenue, pushing the terror group toward extortion. Since then, the U.S. military has aggressively attacked ISIS’s oil revenue sources, attacking cities from which they stole oil and stopping trucks from carrying that oil out.
And while Trump said it is “largely because of what I was saying and my criticism of NATO” that the alliance formed a counterterrorism unit earlier this year, the military, which worked with its NATO partners after every major European attack and in the war against ISIS, remembered it differently.
NATO formed its counter terrorism unit because of the attacks on Paris and Brussels, and the need to coordinate across European borders and American partners, not because of Trump, they said.
“That was a decision that was taken a long time ago but is implemented now,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told Foreign Policy earlier this month, in response to Trump’s claims.
The result Tuesday was, despite Dunford’s repeated attempts to keep the election out of what is supposed to be an apolitical military, the debate pushed politics to the fore.
On Tuesday morning, as troops gathered to talk amongst colleagues, some talked about urging family members to change their votes for one of the candidates. Some argued about who won the debate. Still others wondered how many of the politically-appointed civilian leaders at the Pentagon will still be at the building after the election. And who will replace them?
Most of all, the chatter around the building was about planning for what could happen after the election.
“Regardless of who wins, the next four years is gonna be like an Iraq deployment. Nothing will get better. We just have to get through it,” an Army commander concluded.