The war in Iraq has morally crippled the Republican Party, if not all of America. The fact that a conflict which has taken the lives of more than 4,150 Americans to date, wounded tens of thousands more, and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians serves as the centerpiece of the Republican Party platform boggles the mind. As a lifelong registered Republican, I have been torn apart by the immoral embrace of the Iraq war by members of a political movement which at one time seemed to pride itself as being the defender of a strong America built on the ideals and values enshrined in the Constitution.
With such feelings, I found myself headed to the 2008 Republican convention, where I was invited to speak to the Veterans for Peace and other groups, a committed supporter of Barack Obama. I was somewhat surprised at how my opinions and attitudes were changed by the experience.
I landed in Minneapolis in time to watch John McCain introduce his newly selected running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, to the United States. Like many other Americans, I was struck by how little I knew of her. I listened intently as she spoke, and was taken aback not by what she said (it was standard political fare) but rather by how the crowd reacted. One moment in particular concerned me: When Palin stated that her eldest son, 19 years of age, had enlisted in the Army and was soon to be deployed to Iraq, the crowd erupted in wild cheers of “USA! USA! USA!,” as if the mother of five had announced that her son just beat the Russians at hockey. That Sarah Palin stood there, taking in the cheers with a smile, only underscored the fact that she herself had no appreciation of the gravity of the situation, and the reality of what her son was getting into. Her son’s service to his nation had been marginalized into little more than a campaign prop, his patriotism debased by a crowd of political supporters who knew little of the reality of war and instead treated it as some perverse form of national sport. One only hopes that Palin will not have to learn how it feels to be the parent of a wounded vet, or worse, a Gold Star Mother. Would she think back on that moment when she allowed her son’s courage to be demeaned by an act of partisan selfishness?
I might have seen this sort of thing coming. In April 2001, at the invitation of Rep. Jack Kingston, I spoke before the Theme Team, a collection of influential Republican congressional representatives. The topic was Iraq, and in particular Iraq’s status as a threat worthy of war. I argued that the United States must exhaust all options, especially resolving the weapons of mass destruction issue through inspections, before there could be any talk of war with Iraq. I provided the assembled Republicans, and their respective staffers, with an in-depth analysis (derived from my June 2000 article, “The Case for the Qualitative Disarmament of Iraq,” published in Arms Control Today) of what I deemed to be the current state of affairs concerning Iraqi WMD, and I warned the Theme Team that any push for war against Iraq based upon the exaggeration of a WMD threat would come back to haunt the Republican Party. As a fellow Republican who had voted for President George W. Bush, I told them, I was loath to see America under Republican leadership head down that path. My advice was not heeded. While Rep. Kingston and his fellow Republicans were receptive, thanking me for my testimony (which they claimed was “enlightening”), the Theme Team backed, and continues to back, President Bush’s disastrous decisions on Iraq.
It is with this consistent support for the Iraq war from the heart of the Republican Party in mind that one must judge John McCain’s stubborn insistence on staying the course. Long deemed a “maverick” for his tendency to run afoul of mainstream politics, on Iraq McCain has been anything but. With the presidency clearly in his sights, McCain has retreated to politically comfortable turf. He has a résumé of military service of such merit that no one dares challenge the former prisoner of war’s status as a “true American hero,” and he has built his campaign and, by extension, his party, around the themes of “military service” and “service to country.” His enthusiasm for the invasion of Iraq has been matched by his support for a continuation of the mission there through to completion and victory. In this, McCain staked out the once-lonely position of supporting a “surge” in U.S. combat strength in Iraq, standing nearly alone in 2006-2007 while most others, Democrat and Republican alike, were considering options for the reduction of U.S. force levels in Iraq, if not their outright withdrawal. McCain has staked his campaign on this support of the “surge,” coupled with the subsequent reduction of violence in Iraq. It is his strongest argument that he is a leader capable of seeing America through these difficult times.
The illusion is almost perfect. Even I, at times, am left wondering, in the face of the policy vacuum coming out of the Obama camp, whether or not McCain has gotten this one right. I have to admit to having a soft spot for John McCain. His story as rebel naval aviator and courageous prisoner of war is well known to anyone who has studied the Vietnam War and its many profiles in courage. As a junior congressman from Arizona, McCain had the courage to confront President Ronald Reagan about the lack of a viable mission for the U.S. Marines in Lebanon, before the Marine barracks were blown up by a suicide bomber. In 1998, it was John McCain who came to my defense during my testimony before the U.S. Senate, following a contemptuous assault on my viability as a witness by none other than Sen. Joe Biden (more on that later). In 2000, I counted myself among the ranks of the “McCainiacs,” infatuated by the “straight-talk express” and hopeful for some real change in Washington, following what I believed to be eight ineffective years of the Clinton administration. In fact, McCain is the only presidential candidate I have ever donated money to (although the $50 check I sent following his victory in the New Hampshire primary almost assuredly went unnoticed). But then came South Carolina, and the debacle at Bob Jones University. The absolute caving in by McCain to the religious right of America, and his unconditional surrender to the presidential ambitions of George W. Bush, left me and other “McCainiacs” feeling empty, and the “straight talk express” nothing more than a mangled wreck on the American political highway. I have never trusted John McCain since, and it is with that opportunism in mind that I so dimly assess his much touted “surge” strategy.