SACRAMENTO – As usual, American policy-makers, the media and California’s political candidates avoid the big issues while they make a huge deal out of the small stuff. The latest example is Afghanistan, where Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. and coalition commander, got booted from his post by the president Wednesday after McChrystal and his staff mocked administration officials in an illustrative Rolling Stone profile.
McChrystal was apologetic after the interview was published on the Internet, but his crew’s criticisms of officials were rather funny, especially to those of us who don’t have any illusions about the people who often hold governmental authority.
Speaking of no illusions, consider the two lightweight candidates for U.S. Senate from California, Republican Carly Fiorina, an inexperienced moderate who some observers believe almost destroyed Hewlett-Packard when she was CEO, and Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, one of the most clueless liberals ever to grace that august chamber. One of the core issues in the race should be foreign policy, and Afghan policy in particular, but neither candidate has given much insight into where they stand. Given the “majoring on the minors” state of affairs in politics these days, I expect more discussions about Fiorina’s snarky comments about Boxer’s hairdo than much of anything foreign-policy related.
In dismissing McChrystal, President Barack Obama said that this was a core matter of principle – reasserting “civilian control of the military that’s at the core of our democratic system.” But McChrystal got the boot for embarrassing the administration, not because of any high-minded principle. Commanders in chief rarely tolerate generals who publicly make fun of them and their top aides, just as generals don’t tolerate the same behavior from their subordinates. McChrystal showed, in his own words, poor judgment and, in my words, absolute stupidity, for all the banter and braggadocio in front of a reporter.
But what about the nearly nine-year U.S. presence in Afghanistan, the large death toll for U.S. forces (more than 1,000 as of June) and the scandalous number of civilians being killed by U.S. and NATO troops? I guess if we can’t get a real debate at the White House, then we aren’t going to get one in many other places. McChrystal’s insult to high-ranking officials dominated the news last week, but some of his other remarks have gone, well, largely unremarked upon. As McChrystal said to the New York Times in March: “We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat.”
The idea that Americans are killing “an amazing number” of Afghan civilians should be big news and the source of major White House and Senate debate. It should dominate campaigns. So should the basic foundation of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. But the president, his aides and the general all agree that the Afghan policy of counterinsurgency, known as COIN, is the right one to pursue. As Rolling Stone describes it, “COIN calls for sending huge numbers of ground troops to not only destroy the enemy, but to live among the civilian population and slowly rebuild, or build from scratch, another nation’s government – a process that even its staunchest advocates admit requires years, if not decades, to achieve.”
Where are the voices of Democrats, such as Boxer, who elected a president who promised to keep us out of this mess? What about Republicans, such as Fiorina, who should be against these types of costly nation-building experiments, which they decried during the Clinton administration? If you told a Republican that the federal government would go into Detroit, where civil society has broken down, and crime runs rampant, and create a multibillion-dollar Great Society program, they would be aghast, arguing that the federal government cannot throw tax dollars at a problem and succeed. But add missiles, drones and guns to the mix, and install government officials in a far-off land that has been a sinkhole for other empires, and Republicans instinctively support the mission.
Political races these days mostly are about gotcha campaign ads and conflict avoidance, not about serious policy debate. Fiorina’s campaign website features four short paragraphs about foreign policy, under the heading, “Protecting America.” Most of the statements are pabulum. She lauds the “men and women who are serving our country overseas”; she declares that “government’s first priority is to protect its citizens,” and she “will also make it her priority to stand with our nation’s allies … . Carly also views defeating the terrorist threat in Afghanistan as an imperative that requires military commitment, economic development and diplomatic energy. To achieve victory, it is critically important to continue listening to our commanders on the ground and to stay until our job is done.”
That’s the kindergarten version of foreign policy, but at least Fiorina takes some sort of position, vaguely supporting Obama’s vision for Afghanistan. But Boxer, who earlier in the month voted to set a timeline for withdrawing troops from that decrepit land, has nothing on her “issues” site about any foreign policy, although she does list the many government programs she promises for veterans. Overall, she hasn’t said much about Afghanistan, although she sent a letter to the president in January, arguing that U.S. policy isn’t paying enough attention to the needs of Afghan women and girls. Boxer sees the whole world through the prism of liberal American social policy.
And there we stand – a nation more interested in a few disrespectful remarks by a general than in the highly dubious policy the administration is advancing, and political candidates who avoid the tough issues in favor of empty bromides and promises for more government programs.
I’ll end on a positive note: There’s still plenty of time for Boxer and Fiorina to engage this issue. It’s up to California voters to insist that we get this debate.
Steven Greenhut is director of the Pacific Research Institute’s journalism center.