After a week of exchanging diatribes on whether the other candidate had the temperament and judgment to be president, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton participated in a Commander-in-Chief forum on September 6 in front of a group of military veterans aboard a decommissioned US naval ship harboured in New York.
Although the format was not a debate – each candidate in separate sessions was asked questions by the interviewer and by veterans in the audience – they tried to highlight their qualifications for the job, but couldn’t resist taking jabs at each other despite the fact that the interviewer wanted them to stay clear of such actions.
Clinton under fire
Clinton was asked several tough questions about her email usage on an unclassified server while she was secretary of state.
Although she acknowledged that she had made a mistake in this regard, she emphatically denied that she received or sent classified emails because none of the messages contained the headers of “top secret, secret or confidential.” She also claimed that there was no evidence that her personal email accounts had been hacked.
One veteran, who noted that he had security clearances when he served in the military, underscored that he would have been prosecuted and imprisoned if he had done what she did.
She gave a very scripted response to his comment, which sounded both legalistic and defensive.
Such answers did not do anything to dispel the notion of her untrustworthiness, which various polls have pointed out.
This subject remains her chief vulnerability and is unlikely to go away before the November election.
Reacting to recent criticism from Trump and others that she is an uncontrollable hawk who is eager to intervene militarily, Clinton said that defeating the ISIL is her top counterterrorism goal.
Clinton was on stronger ground – and appeared less defensive – dealing with foreign policy issues.
Although she acknowledged again that her vote in 2002 to give then-president George W Bush the authority to go to war against Iraq was a mistake, she said it was “imperative that we learn from mistakes”.
She then contrasted her acknowledgement with Trump’s duplicity on the subject, saying that he supported the Iraq war at the time even though he denies doing so today.
Clinton also defended her decision to favour intervention in Libya in 2011, stating that the US had the support of both NATO and the Arab League, and claimed such intervention prevented Muammar Gaddafi from massacring thousands of Libyan citizens.
Moreover, she strongly defended the Iran nuclear deal by noting that it is in the strategic interests of the US to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but then underscored that she still has problems with Iran’s “malicious activities” in the region that need to be dealt with.
Reacting to recent criticism from Trump and others that she is an uncontrollable hawk who is eager to intervene militarily, Clinton said that defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) is her top counterterrorism goal; but then went on to say that the battle against it should only involve air strikes, US advisers and Arab and Kurdish fighters, not US ground troops.
She also said that the US needs to do much more to confront the ideology of ISIL in cyberspace.
She then took a final jab at Trump by saying that his comments disparaging Muslims and the Muslim parents of a fallen American soldier “is the last thing we should be doing” as it gives fodder to groups such as ISIL.
Trump’s strength in the forum was his description of the Iraq war as a disaster that has destabilised the Middle East and one that should have never been fought. This sentiment is shared by a majority of Americans.
Because of Clinton’s vote for the Iraq war and her intervention in Libya, Trump underscored that she has a “happy trigger” finger and suggested that she would be more inclined to take the US into other conflicts.
But Trump’s penchant for saying contradictory things and his ignorance of some foreign policies highlighted his own vulnerabilities.
After saying for months that he had a secret pan for defeating ISIL if elected president, he said on September 6 that he would task his top generals to come up with an anti-ISIL plan in 30 days of his taking office.
When the interviewer noted this discrepancy, Trump tried to finesse it by stating that even though he has his own plan, he would still want to hear from the generals and suggested the two plans could be melded together.
More alarmingly, he said one of the gravest mistakes coming out of the Iraq war was that the US did not “take the oil”.
Sounding like an early 20th century imperialist, he lamented the disappearance of “to the victor go the spoils”.
If the Syrian and Iraqi oil fields were in US hands, he added, ISIL would not have profited from their sale. He failed to explain how non-ISIL Iraqis and Syrians would have reacted to this grab of economic resources.
But perhaps Trump’s most disturbing comments were his effusive praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling him a “leader, far more than our president” has been.
Trump added that he could develop a good relationship with Putin and said it would be “wonderful” if the US would work together with Russia against ISIL.
He seemed to ignore the fact that the Obama administration was trying to achieve this very goal but has not been successful because Russia’s chief aim is to shore up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
All in all, the Commander-in-Chief forum was a slight advantage for Clinton because she seemed more comfortable with the issues, minus the ongoing email server controversy.
Gregory Aftandilian is a lecturer in the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and is a former US State Department Middle East analyst.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.