Opinion: CJ Opinion

Afghanistan debacle should remind us of what authentic leadership looks like

James B. Stockdale statue at the United State Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
James B. Stockdale statue at the United State Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan is a brutal reminder of the lack of leadership in America now. Much of the blame falls on President Biden. Yet, given the U.S. failed at an orderly retreat after its 20-year endeavor —not to mention over $1 trillion in spending on Afghanistan — a perfect symbol for an even broader leadership collapse emerged.

Owning up to failure is an essential character of a leader. A test Biden failed when he said the “buck stops with me” while simultaneously throwing Donald Trump and the Afghans under the bus.

The quality of ownership is anathema to so many in politics. Instead, political spin and self-preservation reign supreme in the ruling class. While all the political chicanery is accepted as part of the game, there are times when even politicians need to knock it off and lead the nation. Unfortunately, we see it less and less.

Admiral James Stockdale (1923-2005) was one of America’s most outstanding leaders. Yet, he failed in his only foray into national politics.

Stockdale was supposed to be a temporary running mate for Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign for president. Although, Perot never settled on a permanent choice.

Stockdale was pushed into the vice-presidential debates between Al Gore and Dan Quayle, where he was unprepared and looked wildly out of place. His performance was mocked by the media and by the infamous “Who am I? Why I’m here?” skit on Saturday Night Live.

Still, many Americans didn’t know — and it wasn’t even a contest — that Stockdale was the most exceptional man on the stage. He would be anywhere. A hero for the ages.

“Congress should pass a law requiring every person who laughed at him during the vice-presidential debate to read the citation that explains why Stockdale received the Medal of Honor for his conduct as a senior prisoner of war in Hanoi for more than eight years,” declared the political consultant, Ed Rollins.

As senior commander at the Hanoi Hilton, the infamous North Vietnamese prison camp, Stockdale tried to disfigure himself and end his own life to stop the brutal torture of the men under his command. His extreme efforts ultimately improved the conditions for him and all the Americans being tortured.

Writing about the debt crisis in the 1980s, Stockdale noted a simple truth completely lost on Washington today:

“Those who study the rise and fall of civilizations learn that no shortcoming has been surely fatal to republics as a dearth of public virtue, the unwillingness of those who govern to place the value of their society above personal interest.”

Servant leadership is rare today, but there is no substitute for it. This should remind us of the importance of virtue in the public square.

One great leadership lesson I learned from my dad is an invaluable one. He served as an officer and pilot in the U.S. Air Force for over 2 1/2 decades. At his retirement ceremony, he lessened the attention on himself by paying tribute to others, particularly the heroic crews of the 8th Air Force who showcased remarkable courage to quicken the end of a global conflict. During World War II, the 8th Air Force lost more men than all the Marines in the Pacific combined. At the beginning of the war, an American tail gunner over Europe had a life expectancy of about two weeks.

America has an exceptional heritage of leadership. Our first president, George Washington, voluntarily gave up power – not just once – but twice. Let’s not abandon those qualities for the table scraps and crumbs offered by today’s so-called ruling elite.

Yet, if we remain a morally impoverished society, it’s more than likely we will elevate morally impoverished leaders. Leadership requires many qualities, but the current decline will only continue if we don’t soon demand basics like character and humility.

Ray Nothstine is Carolina Journal opinion editor.