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Lorelei Kelly Headshot

Save Afghanistan? How About America?

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The fracas over General McChrystal departing Afghanistan is a reminder that impressive fireworks exist year round in our nation's capital. I'm hoping everyone got a good refresher on civil-military relations out of this experience because we, as a nation, really need it. And despite what you think of the situation, McChrystal has exited gracefully. A manner of departure which, in itself, is another credit to his public service. Something we Americans often forget is that our country is widely admired for the civilian dominance in our governing DNA. Indeed, every student at West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy is marinated in this belief system. Anybody who works on Afghanistan policy can understand why McChrystal's team was frustrated. But most also understand that what the Rolling Stone article documented was wrong behavior. In the end, the professionalism of our armed services is a gratifying achievement.

I hate to say it on the Fourth of July, but we civilians don't deserve them.

And I don't mean the civilians risking their lives and serving the public both at home and overseas. (The latest person I know who was in an IED hit is a diplomat). I mean us, the American people. The larger issue that Americans must confront -- at long last -- is what do we want our military to be? Just a couple decades ago, the Soviet-US standoff meant that missile counts and political borders defined security. Strategically speaking, it was easy to justify a NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) worldview, bolstered by soldiers and weapons. In today's world, you can't just make the yucky stuff go away with a border and a gun. From BP's mess to extremist violence, everybody is now in everybody else's backyard. The good news is that long term survival will require more social intelligence--the ability to understand and manage people-- from us and our leaders. Introverts will both dread and sympathize with the work before us. In order to be prosperous and persuasive, in order to succeed in today's world, you have to be able to deal with people.

And this is where we've literally fallen down a black hole when it comes to policy making. We have made our Defense Department the most socially intelligent part of our foreign policy establishment. The institutional memory of how the world has changed resides in the Pentagon. Not among our elected leaders in Congress. Not in the civilian agencies. Our diplomats at the State Department are racing to catch up, but State has decades worth of growing to do before it can match the heft of Defense. Our Agency for International Development has a heroic challenge ahead. It is the one federal agency tasked with a long term goal --and it has been pretty much outsourced or otherwise absent for many years. This dilemma is obvious today in Afghanistan. We civilians have failed to draw bright lines about use of force, to make decisions about resources and to train the kind of personnel necessary to engage with a world that now lives in our backyard and that does not like a gun in its face.

The current imbalance in our government--and the infatuation in our culture with all things uniformed--is very uncomfortable for the professional military. And this thoughtless tendency is becoming conventional wisdom. This past year we have deployed the military to fight terrorists in Afghanistan while guaranteeing human rights for Afghan women, and to use its logistical magic to rescue Haiti. There have been calls to send in troops to fight the drug war in Mexico and plug the oil spill.

For their sake, and for the sake of American democracy, we need to stop it.

We must figure out how to be present in a different way in today's world-- where relationships have become as important as borders. As a nation, we need to adapt the characteristics of a socially successful individual-- learn to anticipate, engage, prevent and take the long-term view when it comes to security.

We've learned this backward in Afghanistan. The counterinsurgency strategy is the military's version of being present differently. Reducing combat activities, stepping up protection activities, assuming more risk upon themselves. The question for us and the challenge for General Petraeus is whether or not this course of action matters if combat activities continue.

If I were serving in Afghanistan, I'd be asking myself, What the hell do they want us to do?

We've had decades to work on this question which is only getting its full measure of attention now, post Cold War, post 9/11 and in the midst of Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither Congress nor the Executive Branch has yet fully taken on the challenge. This president is aware of the problem, and making it a priority...Both our Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State are reforming their institutions and consistently talk publicly about the need to recalibrate.

But this year's budget again demonstrates that we've got a long way to go in achieving a modern notion of security.

We're spending $710 billion on Defense and it looks like International Affairs--including the State Department will come in at about $55 billion (less than 10% of what we spend on military security).

Which is one of the reasons why our military has become the one stop shopping government agency for foreign policy and why we are better prepared to fight Napoleon Bonaparte than Osama bin Laden.

Last week, I was walking through the Rayburn building in the House of Representatives. I stopped by the Army Liason office and picked up the Army Weapon Systems 2010 . It is a publication, paid for by taxpayers, that nicely demonstrates why we continue to yearn for the last century. State by state, each weapons platform is detailed down to components and corporate contracts. It's basically a voting guide for Members of Congress. Unless the non-military hardware part of US foreign policy becomes similarly organized, with equally apparent political incentives, we'll continue down this path to the past. Our security will be compromised as a result.

Conservatives and even the Tea party "movement" are tuned into the realization that our current spending is unsustainable. A hard right faction is insisting on exempting the defense budget, however, from the rest of their public sector target list. Sarah Palin will be the pin-up girl for this line of reasoning.

Keep in mind that anyone who insists that the defense budget is the exception to the budget austerity rule is a liability to national security and, most of all, to our military itself. Like any public institution, the military and defense budget must be part of an ongoing debate and discussion.

The current dilemma presents a chance for Progressives to scoop the right wing. True conservatives loathe the use of force, electing to use it overwhelmingly or as a last resort. They are purists when it comes to risking military lives. True conservatives view the military as a good insurance policy. Pay for an excellent one and then work really hard so you never use it. What would we be doing in Afghanistan if using the military were not an option? What if we had thought about this in 1991?

Barring an open and democratic dialogue about what our military is for in today's world we'll continue to have frustrated Generals and we'll risk more lives.

Every American can do something about this dysfunctional silence, starting at home, at the dinner table, with your relatives who have served the US Government abroad or as non governmental humanitarians. Alternatively, go to your local VFW, talk with some ROTC students, find the local chapter of retired foreign service officers, check out the peace studies program at the local college, join the World Affairs Council, the Rotary Club, the League of Women Voters. Convene a discussion with a Member of your recently returned National Guard Unit. Recalibrating US presence in the world is not a challenge that will be solved in Washington, DC. Those of us working here might have lots of answers but we don't have the power to make the change. You do.

If each of us breaks this frozen conversation, what a happy birthday for America that would be.

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