My grandfather was dying. It was time to leave the D.C. bubble and head home.
In December 2018, I landed in freezing Minnesota, my adrenaline pumping. I had just finished a series of urgent meetings in D.C. The president was about to withdraw our troops from Syria. It was a horrible mistake, reversing years of progress in fighting ISIS. I had spent years tracking the war and advising our military on how to fight it. We needed to convince decision-makers that remaining in Syria was vital to our national security. The media wanted context. Syrians demanded answers. My duties at work were important, particularly at that moment, but so was the reason I decided to fly home.
Over the years I’d grown accustomed to the transition from Washington to Middle America, though it still required a mental shift. But it was always productive to leave the noise of the Beltway and reconnect with “real America.” The exhausting politics fade quickly. Problems that seemed large shrink. I become surrounded by citizens with simple, powerful convictions that are lost in the clamor of Washington politics: that our government must uphold the nation’s values and protect the freedoms and prosperity many have fought for. Few in Washington would disagree, of course, but they seldom have the time, energy, or space to remain as focused on core principles as the people they represent. This reminder is humbling, and a helpful corrective to Washington’s distortions.
There is a pervasive myth about “real America”: that its people don’t care about what happens outside the United States, and so Beltway elites who do are betraying a trust of sorts. My experiences at home have always taught me otherwise. Americans care strongly about the world.
My dying grandfather was no exception. Unexpectedly, my trip home to say goodbye to him became a reminder of the vitality of the American spirit just when skepticism toward it was rising among foreign policy elites. At the hospital, my grandfather called me to his bedside. I was surprised – I was told he hadn’t been speaking much. I leaned in to hear him say, “I’d like to kick him through a goal post.” Bewildered, I worried someone had mistreated him. “Who’s that, Grandpa?” I asked. He replied, “You know, Kim Jung Un. I’d like to kick him through a goal post.” He was referring to the ruthless dictator of North Korea.
Those were his last words to me.
I don’t remember ever discussing North Korea with my grandfather before, be it the threat its nuclear weapons pose or the regime’s cruelty. But he knew I had come from Washington, and he saw me as an emissary of sorts. He was a World War II veteran and cared about the U.S. failure to address the North Korean threat, among others. His final words to me captured a truth that I had encountered constantly but might surprise our policy elites: Americans have an instinctive concern for what happens in the world. And they prefer to face challenges head on.
The years I’ve spent in the country’s heartland have shown me that its perspectives on national security get superficial treatment in the media and D.C. itself. Its people are portrayed as parochial and indifferent toward events outside the United States. This conflates prudence with apathy. They are indeed generally skeptical of major foreign commitments and entrusting government with them, and rightly so. Policies that do not deliver on their promises should be scrutinized. But Americans are most often ready to meet challenges abroad and willing to make sacrifices. Politicians patronize and disempower Americans by projecting apathy on to them to justify a policy agenda. Their decisions are worse because of it.
Americans in the heartland may not know the details of national security threats, but often, their moral clarity and common sense cut through the noise of policy deliberations. They expect their leaders to exhibit the resolute courage they see as having forged a great nation and are disappointed by the hand wringing common in Washington. This attitude does not provide specific policy answers, of course, but it can and should animate sound strategic thinking. It is too often ignored.
I had just such a conversation soon after I began my national security career. On one trip home, I was asked about Syria, “What on earth is going on over there?” Russia was bombing civilians and claiming they were terrorists, I explained with some outrage. I braced myself to be told we had no business intervening against a nuclear power. It was, after all, the dominant case for staying out of Syria back in Washington, and questioning it was portrayed as akin to warmongering. In Minnesota, however, I was asked careful questions about how the Russians were getting away with this, and whether the United States could do anything about it. It was the clearest, most honest conversation on Syria I’d had in months.
I began making a point of joining speaking events outside D.C. Usually, people asked direct yet difficult questions, and I was forced to question my assumptions. As in Minnesota, I provided the basics. What is happening, and what are the consequences? Audiences wanted details, and I provided them, making clear the limits of my expertise. Unlike in Washington, this brought me credibility. My audience didn’t always like my policy positions. We often disagreed about the tradeoffs of acting now or later. The dialogue was invariably helpful. I always emerged a better analyst and, I believe, a better citizen for having my views challenged.
Ultimately, the president did not withdraw from Syria, but the mass murder of innocents there has continued. The troops deployed to Syria were not ordered to intervene to stop the worst of the slaughter. They went to fight ISIS, which exploited the war to seize territory in eastern Syria. Rather than confront Russia’s murder of innocents, America’s leaders have continued to ask Russia to stop. It feels like begging. The Syrian regime has killed hundreds of thousands, gassing them, starving them, bombing them with the aid of the Russian air force. From Washington, we observe the massacres in horror but not surprise. No serious effort has been made to engage the American public on whether these horrors merit a U.S. response.
Middle America is not nearly as hardened to the suffering in places like Syria, or its consequences, as Washington elites assume. A great many Americans believe deeply in core principles and are willing to sacrifice for them at home and abroad. For most, exposure to the war in Syria has been limited to the few sharp moments when Assad used chemical weapons at a level that broke into the 24-hour news cycle. My experience showed me that at these moments, Americans supported a response, perceiving, as they so often do, common cause with those risking their lives in pursuit of freedom. But that moral clarity has yet to reach much of Washington, D.C.
U.S. foreign policy fails the citizens it is meant to serve when it excludes them from dialogue or whitewashes their views in the service of politics. The wisdom lacking in Washington can often emerge from the American heartland, from people like my grandfather. Engaging them in conversation can be a challenging proposition for experts steeped in the habits of policy talk. But for those brave enough to try, it is deeply rewarding. For my part, I will continue to endeavor to learn from my fellow Americans while providing my forthright assessment of what is at stake and what must be done. They deserve no less.