Ben Carson, right, watches as Donald Trump speaks during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015, in Boulder, Colo.

Ben Carson, right, watches as Donald Trump speaks during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015, in Boulder, Colo. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

Why Veterans Day Won't Spark Real Debate on National Security

Veterans Day underscores how the public and politicos focus on manufactured patriotism instead of actual national security experience and policy specifics.

It’s Veterans Day, that time of election year when all of the presidential candidates unveil their policy platforms for veterans and troops. They squabble with each other to show how much they care — despite rarely mentioning them in the campaign until now.

But a mere glance at the polls — and the two Republicans at center stage in the presidential debate Tuesday night — is a measure of how much voters actually understand the military and national security.

The recent controversy with Ben Carson, the soft-spoken neurosurgeon who is on Donald Trump’s heels, is a case in point. Carson is pushing back against claims he inflated an oft-cited anecdote about West Point, the elite U.S. military academy. Meanwhile, his veterans policy calls  for reforms — while he calls for eliminating the Department of Veterans Affairs. (Veterans groups called the proposal “dangerous.”)

Other potential fabrications by Carson haven’t received nearly the same attention, because they do not call into question a central patriotic theme in his personal narrative. The American public and its politicians obsess over the apparent authenticity of candidates’ patriotism and politicize national security and the military, while largely ignoring the lack of experience that informs their policies.

Asked in the debate Tuesday night about President Obama's decision to send special operations troops to Syria, Carson said, "Putting special ops people in there is better than not having them there." The U.S. needs to show members of the Islamic State are "losers," he said, for example, by taking back energy fields in Iraq — easily done, "I’ve learned from talking to several generals." 

His comments echoed Trump, who has joined in the melee over Carson's past, using it as an opportunity to hit his closest rival. But Trump too has overinflated his connection to the military.

Having attended a military boarding school for five years, Trump said he “always felt that I was in the military” because he “dealt with those people,” saying the school gave him "more training militarily than a lot of the guys that go into the military.”

But early in his campaign, he also said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., a decorated Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war, was not a war hero. As for his national security and veterans policy, in August, he said he’d send the U.S. military to Iraq to seize its oil and give the proceeds to veterans and troops — ”see, I love them” (a proposal he doubled down on Tuesday night.) His military advisors? “Well, I watch the shows.” He’s since released a more detailed plan for veterans — accompanied by the statement, "There's no way [Carson] can fix this, folks."

"We have to make our military bigger, better, stronger than ever before so that people don't mess with us," Trump said in the debate. As for the Russians' deepening involvement in Syria, he said, "He can go in and we can go in, and everybody can go in."

These are the frontrunners for the Republican nomination.

Voters have said that they’re attracted to Trump and Carson’s authenticity, a personality projection; they speak their mind and aren’t beholden to Beltway insiders. Yet there’s little reality to what little policy pronouncements they have made.

Tellingly, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the only veteran remaining in the Republican field, was booted from Tuesday’s debate altogether. “I don’t care about the room temperature. Go to Iraq and walk around over there with about 60 pounds of gear,” Graham said last week. He referred to Republican candidates’ demands for the forums and the polling algorithms that determine who’s on the main stage, who’s at the “kids’ table” lower debate, and who isn’t there at all. “I think I’ve done well. But when there’s a million and a half viewers versus 14 million, it does matter.”

The thirty-three-year Air Force veteran has made national security and foreign policy central to his campaign. And while some question the feasibility of his “shock and awe” plan to combat the Islamic State — deploying some 20,000 American ground troops to Iraq and Syria as part of a wider coalition — he is one of the only GOP candidates to detail a specific plan.

“If you want to criticize Obama, great, but you better have an alternative,” he said of his rivals. “I’m the only guy with a plan to destroy ISIL … It’s very frustrating. We just have the most cursory examination of the most important issues.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, recently expressed his concern about a lack of national security experience in the Republican field at the Defense One Summit, citing the tumultuous global security environment they could inherit.  

Graham’s close friend and former Republican presidential nominee McCain downplayed the controversy over Carson’s story, saying it is a distraction. “I’m just interested in his take on national security issues,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to me whether he was going to go to West Point or not.”

But he added, “I want to see what their concrete proposals are on these issues, which we’re unfortunately not seeing a whole lot of … in some ways it seems they have the media kind of cowed that when they refuse to answer they kind of let it pass.”

Graham addressed the irony. “I don’t care what you ask me, I don’t care how you ask it, I don’t care how hot the room is,” he said, “I just want to turn to Donald Trump before this campaign’s over and say, ‘Tell me what you’re going to do in Syria.’”

This piece has been updated.

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