Forty years ago this spring, a virus disguised as a campaign jingle began boring its way into the frontal lobes of Georgia voters.
“Sam Nunn is tough, Sam Nunn is young, put Sam Nunn in Washington….”
What can I say? We were a simpler people in 1972. The owl-eyed, state Democratic lawmaker was elected to the U.S. Senate that year, ultimately becoming one of Washington’s foremost military experts. He retired from the Senate in 1997 –– but even now, he can startle you on matters from nukes to Afghanistan.
Although they both had roots in rural Georgia, Nunn was not particularly close to Jimmy Carter, who had followed him to Washington four years later. But in retirement, the two Georgians now have much in common: Both have created spectacular post-public careers.
Carter’s retirement can be tracked by the books he churns out year after year. Twenty-two at last count. By contrast, the first published –– but still partial –– account of Nunn’s life hit the bookstores only last month.
“The Partnership” (HarperCollins, $30) by Philip Taubman, the former New York Times reporter, is an account of the ongoing push by five elder American statesmen from the Cold War era –– Nunn at 73 is the youngest –– for a long-term, worldwide ban on nuclear weapons.
Nukes in an era of superpowers is one thing. Nukes in an era of technically adept, religious-based terrorism is quite another. “I think he took a difficult, complicated subject and made it understandable,” Nunn said of Taubman. “I’m pretty high on it.”
Anything penned by Nunn himself will have to wait. “I started a couple times on an effort to write a book. I didn’t get very far, though,” Nunn said. “I either had to look backward or forward. I couldn’t do both at the same time.”
Nunn had phoned from New York. It was tempting to talk about the launch of his first campaign on the Ides of March, four decades ago. Taubman’s publisher would have preferred a discussion of “loose nukes” and Nunn’s role as co-chairman and CEO of the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative. But you also have to remember that as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Nunn also saw himself as a champion of America’s conventional forces.
The recent murders of U.S. troops by Afghanistan allies, the murders of Afghanistan innocents by a U.S. soldier, Newt Gingrich’s assertion that it might be time to bug out, all made a discussion of the U.S. effort in that country imperative.
“I do believe we’ve got to get out of there more thoughtfully than some people would indicate,” Nunn began. “I think that the course we’re on now is very difficult.” It’s hard to negotiate with the enemy when you’ve already announced an exit date, he explained.
Nunn endorsed Barack Obama in 2008. I asked him to grade the president on three years of Afghanistan policy. He demurred. “The test was so difficult, there were really no right answers,” the former senator said.
“We went into Afghanistan for a good reason, and a pretty clear reason. And that was 9/11 and the al-Qaeda presence there. Somewhere along the way, this became a war against the Taliban. They had been the hosts, but they were natives. That means you were engaging in a civil war,” Nunn said. “Superpowers engaged in civil wars –– they’re not treated very well in history.
“Obviously, you’d like to leave Afghanistan with them being a Jeffersonian democracy and everyone accorded full civil rights, including women. But that’s not the culture. It’d take a long time to get to that culture. And a lot of this is something they’ve got to sort out themselves,” he said.
What was truly bothering Nunn was the impact that Afghanistan –– and Iraq –– has had on U.S. fighting forces.
“The volunteer force was not designed to fight two10-year wars. It was designed to be a peace-time force that could be expanded in wartime,” he said. “And we haven’t expanded it. So you’ve had extraordinary pressure on the same people, over and over and over again.”
Too much of a burden has been placed on too few.
“Our nation, while we have been fighting two wars, has basically sacrificed by having two massive tax cuts and an unfunded prescription drug bill,” said Nunn, who is not often given to sarcasm. “That’s the sacrifice we’ve made here at home. And I think that’s a serious problem for a democracy.”
Last week, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson said he supports a gradual draw-down in Afghanistan, yet would recommend a small but permanent U.S. force in the country -– and nearby.
After Iraq and Afghanistan, Nunn has come to a different conclusion. Future conflicts in Muslim countries should include no ground troops, he said.
“There’s going to be 20, 30 years of this. [Muslims] are going through profound debates in their own religion and society, and that’s going to last for decades. We’ve got to have a much more thoughtful and sustainable approach to that,” Nunn said.
“America certainly is going be involved, but I don’t think it ought to be on the ground. There may be exceptions, but our young men and women –– they’re not trained in this culture, or in the language. The on-the-ground role to me is not a thoughtful or careful role. Basically, over the long haul, it’s not fair to the men and women we ask to perform that mission,” he said.
“Unfortunately, I don’t see victory parades coming at the end of our Afghanistan engagement. But I do think we’ve had enormous sacrifice by an awful lot of folks that need to be treated with tremendous care and respect,” Nunn said.
Note on sound clip above: A participant in the 1972 campaign, long-time Nunn spokesman Roland McElroy, said the jingle was developed by an Atlanta public relations firm that was focused on Nunn’s lack of recognition. Hence the constant repetition of the state House member’s name. The 1977 photo shows Nunn, at right, with an intern — a future, well-compensated columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider