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Inattention may be the most dangerous foreign policy of all

Oct 30, 2014

Yesterday I talked about Congressman Kerry Bentivolio, who is running a write-in campaign to try to keep his seat after losing the Republican primary to David Trott. Bentivolio, who represents a collection of Oakland and Wayne County suburbs from Birmingham to Livonia, told me there was an unwritten rule, at least among Republicans, that you don’t challenge a congressman of your own party in a primary.

That is, as long as that congressman is doing a decent job. However, as I pointed out to Bentivolio, he did just that two years ago; he filed to run against Congressman Thaddeus McCotter.

McCotter later self-destructed and was disqualified from the ballot, but Bentivolio didn’t know that would happen when he filed.

He then told me why he did it. Bentivolio, a Vietnam veteran who is now 63, volunteered to serve in Iraq. His neck was broken, and he had to be evacuated.

While he was recovering, he found that he and his fellow soldiers got unbelievably shoddy treatment. The army would tell them medications weren’t available, when the same drugs were plentiful at a Walmart down the road. After complaints through channels did nothing, Bentivolio decided to write his congressman, Thad McCotter.

“You need to know that could have been a career-destroying move,” he told me. The Army doesn’t like having its dirty linen aired in public.

But he did so anyway -- and never received an answer. We now have a good idea why. McCotter had essentially abandoned his job. He announced he was running for president, though nobody seemed to notice.

He then, by his own admission, shut himself up in his garage to try and write a pilot for a TV show. He paid no attention to Congress, and when he failed to qualify for the ballot, just quit, which meant his communities had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to hold a special election. Whatever anyone thinks of Bentivolio’s politics, it was clear McCotter badly let down the taxpayers.

But this made me realize something else too. Candidates for Congress seldom talk about foreign affairs these days. That wasn’t always the case. They debated issues having to do with the Cold War or Vietnam.

Though Bentivolio served honorably in two wars, voters didn’t seem very interested. The Democratic candidate in his district this year, Bobby McKenzie, talks a lot about jobs and preventing mortgage foreclosures. But here’s the fascinating thing about him; McKenzie is actually an expert on the Middle East who had been working for the state department, running a center designed to turn young Arab men away from groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

He has an in-depth perspective on how to combat radical Islam. He knows we’d be better off addressing the region’s very complex economic and social problems than just bombing whatever terrorist group is committing atrocities this week.

McKenzie could be a valuable addition on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. But he doesn’t talk much about global events on the campaign trail, because that’s not what voters want to hear. We seem to be losing interest in the world.

And what history should have taught us is that not paying attention may be the most dangerous foreign policy of all.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.