PHILADELPHIA — Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump pledged on Wednesday to launch a new U.S. military buildup as he and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton compete over who would be more competent at leading the armed forces as commander in chief.
Buoyed by polls showing him regaining some ground on Clinton, Trump portrayed himself in an address in Philadelphia as a defender of traditional Republican values on national security but with a distinct unwillingness to launch new wars in the Middle East.
He said he would ask Pentagon leaders to present a plan within 30 days to destroy Islamic State if he wins the Nov 8 election. But he said any action would be “tempered with realism” and would avoid “toppling regimes with no plan for what to do the day after.”
“I am proposing a new foreign policy focused on advancing America’s core national interests, promoting regional stability, and producing an easing of tensions in the world. This will require rethinking the failed policies of the past,” he said.
The New York businessman gave Wednesday’s speech in measured tones and offered more policy details than he often does at campaign rallies.
He called for hundreds more new U.S. ships, planes and submarines, and vowed to train thousands more combat troops as well as develop a “state of the art” missile defense system, starting with modernizing 22 Navy cruisers at a cost of about $220 million apiece.
He told supporters at the invitees-only event in the Union League of Philadelphia that America is under threat like never before from foes like radical Islamists, North Korea and China.
“Our adversaries are chomping at the bit,” he said, blaming President Barack Obama and his former secretary of state Clinton for allowing the United States to lose global influence.
He accused Obama of wanting to reduce the size of the Army to 450,000 troops. Trump said he would raise U.S. troop levels to 540,000. He echoed late President Ronald Reagan in calling for “peace through strength.”
Trump has some convincing to do on foreign policy. Many national security experts from past Republican administrations have declared him unfit for the Oval Office due to his temperament and lack of experience.
Veterans and relatives of military staff killed in action decried what they called Trump’s unreadiness to be commander in chief at a news conference outside Trump Tower in New York on Wednesday.
“Please do not disrespect Gold Star families for you have not sacrificed anything for our freedoms,” said Sue Niederer, whose son was killed while serving in Iraq.
“Sacrifice is not in your vocabulary [or] in your nature,” she said of Trump, who was criticized by fellow Republicans for getting into a verbal fight in July with the parents of a Muslim U.S. soldier killed in Iraq.
End the sequester
Trump said on Wednesday he would pay for his buildup by lifting the defense spending caps mandated by the U.S. Congress in 2011 and known as the “sequester.”
He said he would also seek budget reforms, attrition in the federal work force, root out inefficiencies in government spending and collect billions of dollars in unpaid taxes by Americans. Trump did not give an overall cost estimate for his buildup.
The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll shows Trump with 40 percent support vs 39 percent for Clinton, effectively ending Clinton’s bump up in the polls after the Democratic nominating convention. Other polls show Clinton’s lead has shrunk.
Later on Wednesday, the election opponents are to make back-to-back appearances at an NBC “commander in chief” forum in New York, Clinton first, followed by Trump. It will offer a prelude of what to expect from them when national security issues come up in their three presidential debates later this month and next.
Clinton is trying to raise questions about Trump’s temperament and fitness for office given his history of incendiary rhetoric, such as declaring Obama “the founder of ISIS,” an acronym for the Islamic State militant group.
Clinton’s campaign accused Trump of relying on “childish insults” during the Philadelphia speech. “As Hillary Clinton has said, anyone you can bait this easily is not someone you can trust be Commander in Chief,” Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri said in a statement.
Neither candidate had an advantage when it came to national security, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling in August.
Respondents were evenly split between Clinton and Trump when asked “which presidential candidate do you believe will be better at keeping us safe?”.
Trump accuses Clinton of backing “military adventurism” for her handling of conflicts in Libya and the Middle East while she was Obama’s secretary of state from 2009-13.
Trump’s engagement with the Middle East, by contrast, would be to work with governments even if they were not necessarily strong on democracy, a senior aide said.
— by Steve Holland
(Additional reporting by Amanda Becker in Washington and Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Alistair Bell)