While the election for our next commander-in-chief plays out, I’m constantly reminded of a fact that my service in both the Iraq War and in Congress has taught me: There are few things more dangerous in Washington than a lack of perspective on national security affairs.
It’s ironic that tomorrow night’s presidential debate comes exactly 10 years after George W. Bush signed the Iraq War Resolution on October 16, 2002, a decision tragically resulting in more than 4,000 American lives lost, tens of thousands wounded, and a fiscal cost of $3 trillion dollars.
War policy has mostly been an afterthought during this election as Americans become almost numb to perpetual war. An overwhelming complacency has gripped our political leaders while less than 1% of Americans actually served in the military Iraq or Afghanistan, or had “skin in the game.”
As the only Iraq War veteran serving in the House of Representatives during my first term, I was often disgusted, not only by my colleagues’ lack of empathy for our troops, but also their failure to grasp the gravity of their foreign policy decisions. I remember 2007, three years removed from my own deployment to Baghdad and a few months into my first term in Congress – the new guy, still trying to figure out where the bathrooms were. I understood very quickly what was real and what was theater. Once you cut through all the over-the-top rhetoric, it was obvious that funding was the only real leverage we had to end the war. Nothing else would force President Bush to adopt a timeline in Iraq.
But the question of funding the troops was a third rail that no one wanted to touch. A tumultuous political dance led to late nights on the House floor. I ran into a huffy colleague, indignant that he had to be there late, during one of these marathon sessions. He wanted to go home before midnight to sleep. I snapped, reminding my colleague that at that moment there were troops walking point over in Baghdad and Kandahar and they don't get to sleep either.
Soldiers were literally fighting and dying as we slowly pondered their fate, and some elected officials couldn’t be bothered because they were too tired. But I was alarmed less by the whining and more by the realization that many were oblivious to the consequences of our actions – or inactions. It wasn’t until that moment that I truly realized how disconnected our government had become.
Here we were, supposedly the greatest deliberative body in the world, determining the fate and future on two wars, more than 100,000 American troops, 25 million Iraqis, and 35 million Afghanis, and some folks in Congress just couldn’t be bothered.
Yet, as dangerous as it is to have members of Congress who fundamentally misunderstand these key issues, putting someone with this lack of perspective in the Oval Office could prove catastrophic. Whereas any given member of Congress is just one voice in a chamber of 435, the president has tremendous discretion on foreign policy.
Our next commander-in-chief will face a daunting array of national security threats from day one. We continue to be at war in Afghanistan, a nuclear Iran remains on the horizon, and violence rages in Syria.
The Mitt Romney campaign has provided the American people only a glimpse into how a Romney presidency would tackle his national security obligations. His foreign policies consist largely of talking points from a neoconservative agenda that colossally failed a decade ago, such as an unclear timeline in Afghanistan and constant saber rattling on Iran.
Romney’s policies are nothing more than, to paraphrase former Sec. of State Madeleine Albright, a laundry list of shallow platitudes plainly lacking in specifics. Perhaps most alarmingly, he has falsely used tragedies abroad to score cheap political points, as he did with the attack in Libya that resulted in the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three American Foreign Service officers. Stevens' father called for his son’s death to be left out of the politics of the presidential campaign. He told Bloomberg news, "It would really be abhorrent to make this into a campaign issue."
Moreover, we have on our hands a crisis in veterans’ affairs: 18 veterans every single day tragically succumb to suicide, while unemployment among veterans who do make it home remains rampant. Unlike Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential candidate and my former colleague in the House, who voted against an extension of the post-9/11 G.I. Bill, the next president will not be able to shirk these responsibilities.
A president need not have personally served in the military to be an effective commander-in-chief, but he must demonstrate in both words and action, a commitment to those who have. I have yet to see any evidence that the top of the Republican ticket is capable of such an emotion.
Romney failed to mention the war in Afghanistan during his speech at the Republican National Convention. He tried to cut veterans funding by 11% while governor of Massachusetts (according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center), and more recently, equated the sacrifices of those serving overseas in harm’s way to his own sons’ contributions to his presidential campaign.
I recently chatted with a Bucks County, Pa., neighbor of mine, Kim Brown Weinberg. A fiftyish working mother and Reagan Democrat, she sees this election through a rare lens. Her son Ian who is about to be commissioned an Army Lieutenant will potentially be sent off to war within months. Her criticisms of Romney are more personal, because she comes from a military family that dates back to the Revolutionary War.
“Mitt’s four deferments and 30 months in France were a convenient dodge of Vietnam because his daddy was a Governor. I don’t trust him with my son’s life.”
“On the other hand,” Kim states, “I have seen the progress we can make under a commander-in-chief who approaches military issues with seriousness and compassion.” She cited the bold decisions to bring our troops home from Iraq and the daring raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. Unlike Romney, President Obama is clear about bringing our troops home from Afghanistan by 2014.
She also praised President Obama’s fight to bring about the largest increase in veterans benefits in our country’s history. After personally working directly with the president to repeal “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” I know he treats our troops with the honor and dignity that all of them deserve.
The most harrowing undertaking a president must take is the decision to send troops into combat. As someone who has served both on the streets of Baghdad and the halls of the Capitol, I know firsthand the importance of having a president who appreciates the gravity of this responsibility. We cannot afford to have a president who turns his back on our troops when they need their commander-in-chief the most.