U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton was right last week when he criticized the United States’ chaotic pullout from Afghanistan, saying it put the lives of Americans and our allies at risk.
This week, however, the congressman added to that chaos by taking an unauthorized overnight trip to Kabul. In doing so, he diverted attention from the plight of those fleeing the Taliban and shifted the spotlight to himself.
“I don’t care one bit about anonymous quotes from Washington when I’m saving the lives of our allies,” Moulton told the Boston Globe Wednesday, after his extracurricular jaunt was widely criticized by Democrats, Republicans and military leaders.
The Moulton-as-lifesaver angle was a sharp departure from a day earlier, when the Salem Democrat and his traveling partner, U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Mich., released a joint statement saying the clandestine trip was part of their “duty to provide oversight on the executive branch,” and that they were in Kabul “to gather information, not to grandstand.”
We wonder how much oversight the pair was able to accomplish on a trip that lasted about as long as a high school senior’s visit to a prospective college campus.
We also wonder at the disruption caused by two congressmen showing up unannounced to poke around in the middle of one of the largest, most complicated air evacuations in American history. Moulton said the aid workers and members of the armed forces he talked to were glad to see him. They may have been in the minority.
The Associated Press reported the visit “infuriated” the State Department, the Defense Department and the Biden administration, which the news service said viewed the excursion as “a distraction for troops and commanders at the airport who are waging a race against time to evacuate thousands of Americans, at-risk Afghans and others as quickly as possible.” The dangerous nature of that mission was brought into tragic relief Thursday, when a dozen U.S. service members were killed in a suicide bombing.
Moulton didn’t make many friends at home either. Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a statement Tuesday reminding House members that such trips make things more difficult for those trying to manage the evacuation. And fellow Bay State Congressman Jim McGovern thought Moulton was in Massachusetts when he voted on his behalf in Washington earlier this week. He was either willfully misled or not informed of the real reason for Moulton’s absence.
Congresswoman Sara Jacobs, a California Democrat who used to work in conflict zones for UNICEF, told the Globe the trip was “disrespectful” to those working on evacuations.
“When people just show up in these places ... it just adds more work, more chaos for those who are doing the important work on the ground,” she said. “I know it is a very emotional and difficult time, but it is incumbent on us as leaders to separate our emotions from what is needed on the ground.”
In all of this, we have to ask -- what has been gained? The evacuation of Americans and their allies continues apace. Nothing Moulton says over the next few weeks will change that. The American public is fully aware of the situation, which has dominated the news cycle for weeks. And in Washington, members of both parties have vowed investigations into the chaotic end of the longest war in American history.
We are left with our congressman once again in the national spotlight, and not a great light at that. There was the failed attempt to oust Pelosi as speaker in 2018, and the ill-fated presidential campaign of 2020. Now an unauthorized trip to a war zone taken with little regard for the consequences, a jaunt that, despite his protestations to the contrary, likely left him with fewer political friends than when he slipped out of the country.
There is a pattern emerging, and it shows a desire for the spotlight and a lack of political ability to bring about change on a national level. Nancy Pelosi is still House speaker, and the congressman’s presidential campaign ended after four months without getting a glimpse at a debate stage. The congressman’s arrival in Afghanistan did nothing to change the situation there.
That stands in sharp contrast to his approach to his district. When he can be engaged on local issues, Moulton has proven to be an innovative thinker with the ability to bring together and maintain coalitions for the greater good, while remaining somewhat in the background. It is not unreasonable to worry, however, that his habit of making dramatic gestures on the national stage could soon render him less effective at the local level, as he finds himself with few friends in Washington who aren’t cable news hosts.