Following last Monday’s presidential debate on foreign policy, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders offered sage advice. “Foreign policy is an oxymoron. When U.S. presidents deal with countries like Libya, Syria or Iran, whatever they do is a roll of the dice.”
The Middle East is a complex place. We must navigate it carefully. But calling for pumping up the United States’ already prodigious military muscle at any cost and urging the commander-in-chief to jump into every fray can quickly roll snake eyes—generally a losing proposition.
I’m delighted that Ms. Saunders saw Governor Romney moderating his position Monday night. But I’m troubled that over the last year, the Romney campaign—and all the candidates vying for the Republican presidential nod—continually accused President Obama of being too soft regarding Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, and abandoning Israel.
Of course, Governor Romney may disagree with the Republican base he had to impress to win the nomination. He may always have been more hesitant about the use of force. But politics often leads candidates to take positions they personally reject. The logic is simple. The candidate can help the nation only by being elected. And the candidate cannot be elected without support from the party base, which may espouse extreme or aggressive positions. So the candidate must uphold those positions until reaching office—then maintain them to assure re-election. Finally, after four years in office, an enlightened president can move the country forward.
Politics—the need to look tough—can get the nation into war. But politicians don’t fight. President Obama, who has shown restraint, never served in the military. His daughters are too young. Neither did Governor Romney nor his five sons who, he said some years back, served their country in better ways—by campaigning for him. (If you’ve forgotten, the draft ended in 1973.)
Not only can politics start wars, politics can lead to military disaster. Our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan set a standard for ineptitude not on the part of our troops but on the part of Washington. Going back, internal politics—getting tough on Communism—got us into Vietnam and kept us there.
Karl Marlantes, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran and author of Matterhorn, a magnificent novel of the Vietnam War, informs us that politics shapes the battlefield. Washington imposes unworkable policies on the military. Just as bad, officers from general down initiate foolish battles to enhance their prospects for promotion. In Matterhorn, it’s all about body counts. American commanders inflate them while manipulating American casualty numbers to minimize their impact on Washington and the electorate—and their careers. The grunts in the bush pay with blood.
Americans have produced remarkable books and films about war. They include The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War along with the Oscar® winning The Hurt Locker written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow. None are “John Wayne” versions of glory in combat. They defer to the truth.
I hope our presidential and congressional candidates will read or see one before again rolling the dice. Because snake eyes again could be the outcome.
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