(Bill Moloney, Nantucket) In addition to familiar summertime diversions- beaching, biking, swimming, sailing- this island offers a steady parade of celebrity speakers opining on weighty cultural and political matters.
A Nantucket truism validated by my own half century of observation is that the Winter Island is dominated by Conservative Republicans, but the summer is owned by Liberal Democrats such as long time visitors and current MSNBC stars Chris Matthews and Joe Scarborough. It was owing to the efforts of the latter two pundits that I found myself listening to their television colleague Mark Halperin who is also co-author of two of the more readable accounts of the 2008 and 2012 Presidential Elections (Game Change & Double Down).
Long ago the great Democratic House Speaker Sam Rayburn (1882-1961) warned his countrymen “Politics must stop at the Water’s Edge”. Sadly since Viet Nam this is no longer true.
The famed German strategist Karl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) taught us, that “War is the Extension of Politics by Other Means”. In the United States today we have learned that Foreign Policy is also the “Extension of Politics by Other Means”.
This baleful new reality goes far toward explaining the near paralysis of American foreign policy throughout most of this young century. In a better world foreign policy initiatives would need to meet a two-pronged test: A. do they make sense in and of themselves and B. are they in the best interest of our country. Now sitting Administrations- Democrat or Republican- must also weigh an even more problematic metric: Will this initiative be used as a weapon against us in the next election?
This last test is all the more dangerous in a politically polarized era where bi-partisanship seems as dead as the Dodo Bird. The better model pioneered by Democratic President Harry Truman and Republican Foreign Policy Chair Arthur Vandenburg at the outset of the Cold War- consultation, compromise, and cooperation- is something that has utterly disappeared in the current and previous two Administrations.
A prime example of politics paralyzing policy is recurring conflict between civilian and military leadership over troop levels in wartime.
When civilian leadership gets the country into a war the military must assume that said war is necessary and it is their job to win it.
If the war is prolonged it is entirely predictable that the military will request additional resources, particularly troops in order to achieve victory. If the war has become politically unpopular, civilian leadership will be, at best ambivalent about granting such requests, while at the same time being fearful of “losing” the war.
The United States has a very poor track record with “prolonged” wars. Stalemate in Korea doomed the Truman Presidency; Viet Nam did the same to LBJ.
Over time our enemies have figured out that while you can’t defeat Americans on the battlefield you can “Wait Them Out”.
A Classic example of the conflict between civilian ambivalence and military necessity is the dilemma we now face in Afghanistan.
In 2009 a divided Obama Administration agonized for nine months over the military’s request for more troops in Afghanistan. Finally troop increases were granted but at a lower level than requested. However in the very same speech announcing the Afghanistan troop “surge” President Obama also announced the date when Americans would be leaving that country completely.
The response of the Taliban enemy was predictable: “O.K. we’ll wait till you leave, then we’ll win”. And as American Troop levels and active engagement has declined, the Taliban has been winning.
Inevitably the military requested delaying the departure date and sending additional troops to stave off the total defeat of the Afghan government.
Now as in 2009 a divided new Administration is agonizing over a request inherited from its predecessor. Our overstretched military again awaits a political decision on whether and how to stay or leave. Just as President Obama was haunted by his campaign promise to end the “Bush Wars”, so is President Trump bedeviled by his campaign assertion that Afghanistan wasn’t worth the loss of more American lives.
Under our system of government such decisions must be made by civilian leadership hopefully based on serious and thoughtful bi-partisan consultation. However in today’s poisonous political environment the prospects for such dialogue seem dim indeed.
William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post and Human Events.