Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton took the same stage last night and fielded questions about their experience and judgment to be commander in chief. (Photos: Justin Sullivan / Getty (left); Evan Vucci / AP) (Video: CBS Miami)
Donald Trump's accusation that President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are "founders of ISIS" is not only a good example of his reckless fear-mongering but also his complete lack of understanding about true threats to national security.
ISIS, or the Islamic State, as this brutal jihadist group is known, is not even the first, second, third or fourth most serious threat to the United States despite what Mr. Trump shouts from the stump with abandon.
First of all, ISIS grew out of the group al-Qaida in Iraq, which did not even exist until the Bush/Cheney invasion of Iraq in 2003. As to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, completed under President Obama, the agreement to take that step was negotiated by President George W. Bush.
Secondly, Mr. Trump's references to San Bernardino and Orlando are woefully misplaced. Both incidents, while tragic, had as much to do with mental health conditions and outlandish access to automatic weapons as they did with terrorism. Furthermore, the worst terrorist incident in the United States other than 9/11 — the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, which killed 168 people — was committed by a Christian fundamentalist, the very kind of extremist Mr. Trump encourages with his hateful rhetoric.
As for threats to national security, Mr. Trump's truly clueless grasp of international affairs is reflected in irresponsible linkage of terrorism and crime to Muslims and immigrants. No country is immune from mindless acts of madness committed by people who have no respect for human life and civilized values. But U.S. counter-terrorism and law enforcement authorities since 9/11, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, have done a very good job of surveillance, investigation and prevention in a country of 320 million people.
In a huge, diverse country such as this, anything is quite possible, as the 9/11 attack demonstrated 15 years ago Sunday. But the gravest threats to American security, and the security of the industrialized West, come from several more complex challenges coming out of Russia, North Korea, Pakistan, the Middle East and China.
Mitt Romney declared Russia as the most serious threat facing the U.S. four years ago. While his campaign faltered badly, he seems to have had a crystal ball in that regard. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia, a country with a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons, has become more aggressive in the last few years: annexing Crimea, sending its troops into Ukraine, flying reckless flights over the Baltics and, as far as can be determined, trying to intervene in our current election with cyber attacks.
Russia's behavior is convenient for Mr. Trump to ignore since Paul Manafort, one of his revolving door of campaign managers, proved to have accepted millions of dollars to be a hand-maiden of Russian policy to undermine the stability of Ukraine. Mr. Trump's smirky compliments of Mr. Putin, his business dealings with Russians and his dismissal of the importance of NATO are grounds for suspicion of his friendly attitude toward Moscow. His latest embrace of Putin during Wednesday's veterans forum — praising an authoritarian leader with near-dictatorial powers as a stronger "leader" than his own president — verges on treason, a word that means disloyalty in betraying one's country.
North Korea, the most isolated country on earth, also poses a far more serious concern for U.S. and international stability than ISIS. Hundreds of thousands of armed troops, including more than 25,000 American forces, are lined up on both sides of a long border as a young and unproven new leader of the hermit kingdom uses the threat of a missile attack to retain his power.
Pakistan's internal instability ranks close to North Korea as another constant concern. The threat of both war with India, a war that could easily see the use of nuclear weapons, and Pakistan's willingness to create turmoil in neighboring Afghanistan, are grave matters.
The general instability and failure of governance in the Middle East also poses a far more serious threat to the international community than ISIS, now losing ground but still capable of conducting murderous acts. Syria's tragic civil war, Iraq's turmoil, unrest in Libya, Iran's hostility to the West (not just the U.S.) and potential instability in Saudi Arabia add up to a major strategic challenge.
And China's emergence as an up-and-coming world power could pose a long-term threat, especially given its current stance regarding the South China Sea.
Mr. Trump's lack of understanding of national security and international affairs in general prompted Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to President George H. W. Bush, a widely admired strategic thinker, and Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state to Colin Powell, both to denounce him. They had to be revolted by Trump's ridiculous boast: "I know more about ISIS than the generals."
And more than 50 officials who held senior positions in Republican administrations have condemned him as completely unsuited to be commander in chief. Mr. Trump "has little understanding of the nation's vital national interests," they said, and would be "the most reckless president in American history."
Frederic B. Hill (email@example.com) was a foreign correspondent in Europe and Africa for The Baltimore Sun and later conducted policy planning exercises, or war games, for the Department of State. He is co-editor of "The Life of Kings, The Baltimore Sun and the Golden Age of the American Newspaper" (Rowman & Littlefield).