Slinging Mud Over Fallen Soldiers

Slinging Mud Over Fallen Soldiers
Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP
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The tragic and still-murky story of how four U.S. soldiers were killed in Niger, what they were doing there, and whether their sacrifice was properly honored, has descended into a case study of America’s cancerous politics and tendentious media.

The story has several distinct elements, which have been compressed and distorted by partisans. Those elements need to be disentangled and clarified.

The first point is how little we actually know about the deadly mission. As citizens, we need to understand the essentials without spilling any operational secrets. There’s no excuse for another bodyguard of lies, like those surrounding the deaths in Benghazi.

The military chain-of-command needs to know what happened in Niger so they can learn from the tactical failures. Their civilian bosses need to know so they can hold the military accountable and provide the necessary resources. Why was the pre-mission intelligence so bad? Why wasn’t backup firepower available? How can we avoid a repetition?

But tactical failures are only half the story. The other half is U.S. strategy. What the hell is it?

As citizens, we need political leaders to state clearly how we are threatened by the spread of radical Islamist groups to ungoverned spaces across Africa and Asia. Why is it worth risking the lives of our soldiers? We already know the terrorists’ bases in the Middle East are shrinking and that they are seeking new footholds. But how, exactly, do their efforts threaten us? What can we do about it and at what cost? The trade-offs are crucial here since we have limited resources and other profound security challenges, from North Korea and the South China Sea to Russia and Ukraine.

Iran poses another of those challenges, one that bears directly on the Niger firefight. The surprise attack involved radical Sunnis, seeking to build bases in new terrain. Radical Shiites face no such pressures. They can expand close to home, and they are doing just that. Their militias are thriving from Baghdad to Damascus to southern Lebanon, thanks to American errors and Iran’s aggressive moves to exploit them. Led by its Revolutionary Guard, Iran has built a crescent of Shiite terror from Teheran to southern Lebanon. Now that Raqqa has fallen, they will move quickly to add that link to the chain. The Russians, too, have exploited American weakness, backing Iran’s mullahs and Syria’s Assad and reaping the rewards, including the first permanent Russian base on the Mediterranean.

This nasty outcome followed America’s catastrophic strategic failure in Iraq. George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and their generals had no plan to stabilize the country after overthrowing Saddam Hussein. After a change of American strategy and years fighting to correct earlier mistakes, a new president took office and deliberately junked the hard-won victory by precipitously withdrawing all U.S. forces.

These cumulative failures, compounded by President Obama’s decision to back away from America’s traditional partners, Saudi Arabia and Israel, handed the region to Iran and its proxies. Iran’s rise, America’s fall, and the emergence of Sunni extremists (to oppose the Shiites) are deeply intertwined. They form the context for America’s current troubles across the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa.

This box of snakes was opened to the public by the death of four U.S. Special Forces soldiers in Niger. Rather than leading to a serious debate, the episode immediately fell into partisan name calling.

It is a case study in how low our public discourse has sunk and how vile our treatment of political opponents has become. Domestic adversaries, once considered “the loyal opposition,” are now treated as enemies and traitors, as they were in Joe McCarthy’s heyday. The most extreme voices now sling the same epithets at moderates in their own parties. A stable constitutional democracy like America’s might muddle through this toxic mud fight, but it cannot thrive.

To restore stability, if not tranquility, we need to remember some basic principles, beginning with respect for fallen soldiers.

There is no need to quarrel over how presidents undertake this solemn duty. Some phone the loved ones. Some write. Some greet the caskets when they return. But it should be their choice—and respected as such.

It was unbecoming, as well as factually wrong, for President Trump to criticize his predecessors about the ways they honored the killed and wounded. All his predecessors were decent, honorable men who took these losses seriously, personally. Their decency should be acknowledged, not turned into a partisan football.

We can differ with people politically without concluding that they are, by definition, knuckle-dragging fools with evil intentions. This personal vitriol now pollutes our politics. The president has a special responsibility here. Donald Trump has failed it repeatedly. So have the mainstream media, and for the same reason: to capture an audience, whatever the costs. Time after time, they turn the volume up to 11 and incite the crowds. Now, that incessant noise has deafened us to the erosion of our institutions and to the fraying bonds of trust that hold our society together, despite our differences.

If we wash away the encrusted mud, we can have a genuine debate about why four brave American soldiers died in Niger and what larger lessons we can learn from their ultimate sacrifice.

Those soldiers and their families deserve that. They deserve our gratitude. We deserve a serious debate. And we all deserve better from those we choose to lead and inform us.

RCP contributor Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he is founding director of PIPES, the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He blogs at and can be reached at

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