Ask Your Congressman for Big White Hospital Ships

I promised you more depth on a new U.S. foreign policy if you told your friends to visit Trading Eights and I saw a spike in traffic. Sure enough, the past week saw 60% more viewers than the previous week. I have a hunch that a good portion of that is because I started putting music videos on the site, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. The following excerpt comes from a column I wrote in the Hazleton Standard-Speaker in October 2008 after meeting Admiral Mullen. The previous week, I had criticized both the media and Senators McCain and Obama for “a myopic approach to foreign policy” in the first debate.  

In retrospect, September 2008 was surreal, a little like September 2001: uncertainty, fear, confusion, etc. It seems so long ago, but it’s only been a little over a year. The presidential campaigns, you might recall, took a sudden turn to adapt to the public’s latest concerns. I had spent the previous year criticizing the nominees, and then the candidates, for ignoring economic issues, hinting that the GOP made a mistake by turning to John McCain, who knew little about economics (and it showed…remember the gas tax holiday?), instead of Mitt Romney. They were probably doomed anyway, but it was clear both parties were oblivious to the coming storm. When it hit during Lehman Week, they were completely unprepared. Senator McCain made the biggest splash by suggesting they “suspend” their campaigns, but neither candidate knew what to do next. And it was at that moment that we chose to shove them into primetime with the first debate. Two men who had little-to-no economics training tried to explain both the causes of and solutions to the most confounding set of economic events in three decades…in front of the national audience that was expecting one of them to lead the way out. To top it all off, they only had half the debate to do it because the campaigns and the media agreed to split the time between economics and foreign policy, in a transparent sign that no one had thought the matter through. That’s what you get after ignoring economists for a decade.

I believed the real victim was foreign policy. No one could have expected the candidates to be experts on the financial crisis (though, as I’d been arguing for quite some time, we might have been a bit less concerned if they’d displayed the slightest interest in macroeconomic troubles before the global economy fell apart), but they had had plenty of time to plan their foreign policy strategy, and in one sweeping motion it was all thrust aside as if it no longer mattered. The election would turn on the economy, and that’s that. But our foreign policy had been equally as awful as our economic policy for the past eight years, if not longer. So I wrote strongly against the candidates for treating foreign policy so trivially in that first debate instead of agreeing to postpone it “to a later debate when they could give it the full attention it deserves. Instead, it was a sad metaphor for our tragicomic hot-potato approach to geopolitics.” My readers wanted to know why I blamed the candidates instead of the media, who wrote the questions. And it was this query that prompted me to question our broader foreign policy strategy:

Let me come back to that point. First, I want to tell you about Admiral Michael Mullen.

Admiral Mullen is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest ranking military officer in the land with direct access to the President and the Secretary of Defense. Growing up, he never envisioned himself spending his entire life in the Navy, but after a few months in the United States Naval Academy, he was sold.

Admiral Mullen did not have an easy career. A 1968 graduate of the Academy, he calls himself a “Vietnam baby” and talks with a reminiscent anxiety of the times he screwed up and thought his military career was over, only to surprise himself and his commanding officers with his persistence.

The military is built on tradition, so it should come as no surprise that it is customary for a newly promoted admiral to receive a congratulatory letter from every admiral in the Navy—all 250 of them. Upon Admiral Mullen’s promotion, he found each letter fairly standard except one. It read, “From now on, you will always eat well, and you will never hear the truth again.”

Since the end of the Cold War, military experts have clamored for a reorganization of our armed forces. The recommended transformations have been wonkish tinkering easily twisted into vague platitudes—faster, sleeker, flatter, more nimble, more clever, more strategic, multipolar, multilateral—each one reflecting half-baked notions of geopolitics by pundits grasping for an overarching framework for post-USSR foreign policy.

Whether he knows it or not, Admiral Mullen has a far more radical vision. When he lays out the strategic threats facing our nation, he starts with the obvious but concludes with the unexpected. The final piece of his three-pronged approach to national security is “engagement.”

At first, you might think he is just mouthing another chestnut of conventional wisdom, but this comes from a man who sits down with parents all over the world “whose number one goal is to live in peace and to raise their kids to a higher standard of living.” Not a perspective you hear from many military experts.

When Admiral Mullen talks of engagement, you get a different picture than most military strategies. Big white hospital ships: That’s the poster child for engagement. “We only had two,” he says. “I wish we had ten.”

You don’t hear those words come from Senator McCain or Senator Obama. Sure, they have spent a little time talking about humanitarian aid, but not in the visionary way that Admiral Mullen does it. To be fair, the Admiral isn’t talking about a full-scale transformation or an abandonment of our traditional military capacity. The former would be difficult, the latter dangerous.

But maybe we should be talking about a full-scale transformation. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, no one has been able to articulate a satisfying vision of the American military in this complicated world. Yet every day millions of people suffer beneath the weight of poverty and injustice in countries led by oppressive dictators and war-mongering factions. We have thousands of young men and women volunteering to end all that, but we give them the wrong tools.

The candidates should be calling for thirty big white hospital ships. They should be talking about the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia, Central African Republic and Sri Lanka. How can you sleep at night knowing that millions are suffering and dying, but when you were the most powerful person in the world, you did nothing to help them?

If the candidates talked about these issues, if they told Americans that it’s Iraq and Iran today but it may be Somalia or Sudan tomorrow, if they articulated a vision of a transformed American military that prevents wars instead of fighting them, then the media would have no choice but to listen. That’s why it is their fault. They had the microphone, and they chose not to speak up.

The month after I published this column, Somali pirates began hijacking ships off the Gulf of Aden.