- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Seeking to paint themselves as eminently qualified and the other’s judgment as lacking, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton traded barbs Wednesday night over the Iraq War, the Islamic State, U.S. intervention in Libya and other key foreign policy challenges, each telling a hall full of veterans and servicemen and -women that the other isn’t fit to serve as commander in chief.

At a forum hosted by NBC News and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the two White House hopefuls each accused the other of fully supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq, pointing to how the conflict has destabilized the region and led to the rise of the Islamic State.

For her part, Mrs. Clinton once again admitted she’d made a mistake with her vote to authorize the conflict, but quickly turned the tables on her Republican foe and highlighted his own muddy position on the war.

“I think that the decision to go to war in Iraq was a mistake, and I have said that my voting to give President Bush that authority was, from my perspective, my mistake,” Mrs. Clinton said during the 60-minute forum, at which each candidate answered questions for a half-hour. “I also believe that it is imperative that we learn from the mistakes. But I will say this: I’m asking to be judged on the totality of my record.”

That record, she said, also included the 2011 military intervention in Libya, a decision Mrs. Clinton said she stands by. She also said “we did not lose a single American in that action,” glossing over the fact that four Americans were killed in 2012 at the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi and giving Mr. Trump an opportunity to pounce.

“They complicated the mistake, once they bombed the you-know-what out of Gadhafi. They made a terrible mistake on Libya,” he said at the NBC forum, referring to President Obama’s and Mrs. Clinton’s handling of Libya after the initial intervention.

SEE ALSO: Hillary Clinton forgets Benghazi, claims ‘we did not lose a single American’ in Libya

As for Iraq, the former secretary of state charged that Mr. Trump also backed the Iraq War, a claim the businessman vehemently denied even though some of his past statements suggest he supported the conflict.

“I have good judgment. I know what’s going on,” he said. “I happened to hear Hillary Clinton say I was not against the war in Iraq. I was totally against the war in Iraq. I said it’s going to totally destabilize the Middle East, which it has. It has absolutely been a disastrous war.”

On the Islamic State, Mrs. Clinton vowed to defeat the terrorist organization but put strict limits on U.S. engagement. “We are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again. And we are not putting ground troops in Syria,” she said.

Mr. Trump reiterated that he has his own plan to defeat the Islamic State, but will listen to the advice of generals once elected. Those generals, he added, have been marginalized by the Obama administration.

“The generals under Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have not been successful the generals have been reduced to rubble,” he said. “It’s embarrassing for our country.”

Wednesday night’s town hall comes as Mr. Trump is enjoying a massive lead over Mrs. Clinton among veterans and active-duty military, polls have shown, an advantage that has held steady throughout the general election campaign despite an intense effort to discredit the Republican billionaire on foreign policy issues.

SEE ALSO: Donald Trump says illegal immigrants serving in military can stay in U.S.

An NBC News/SurveyMonkey online poll released earlier in the day found that Mr. Trump has a 19-point edge over Mrs. Clinton, 55 percent to 36 percent.

Fifty-three percent of military and veteran voters said they are comfortable with Mr. Trump’s ability to be an effective commander in chief of the country’s military, compared to 35 percent for Mrs. Clinton.

Mr. Trump also had a 53 percent-to-28 percent edge among military and veteran voters when it came to veterans issues.

Mrs. Clinton had a slight edge among military and veteran voters on who they trust more to make the right decisions on nuclear weapons. A new ad released this week by a pro-Clinton group strongly implied that Mr. Trump could trigger a nuclear war if elected president.

Despite those attacks and his missteps on national security issues — including earlier this week, when he gave nonanswers to specific questions about regime change in Syria, the chaos in Libya, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and other issues — Mr. Trump continues to hold a significant advantage over Mrs. Clinton, and, in that respect, the pattern seen in past elections is true once again.

In 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney won the veterans’ vote by 20 points, according to an American National Election Studies post-election survey. In 2008 Republican nominee John McCain won veterans by 10 points, and in 2004 former President George W. Bush carried veterans by 16 points, according to exit polling.

As her lead over Mr. Trump among all voters has dwindled in recent days, Mrs. Clinton clearly wants to cut into her opponent’s lead among veterans and service members.

Both Mrs. Clinton and her vice presidential pick, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, this week launched an all-out assault on Mr. Trump, arguing he’s all but incompetent when it comes to foreign policy.

They’ve assailed the businessman for routinely ducking questions or offering unclear positions on Iraq, Libya, NATO, U.S.-Mexico relations and other key issues, making the broader point that their opponent is unfit to be commander in chief of the U.S. military and would make America less safe.

David Sherfinski contributed to this report.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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