Where Have You Gone, George McGovern?
He knew war well—well enough to know he hated it.
George McGovern was a senator from South Dakota, and he was a Democrat true liberals could admire. Though remembered as a staunch liberal and foreign policy dove, McGovern was no stranger to combat. He flew 35 missions as a B-24 pilot in Italy during World War II. He even earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for executing a heroic emergency crash landing after his bomber was damaged by German anti-aircraft fire.
Still, George McGovern was a humble man who carried the burden, and honor, of his military service with grace. Though proud of his service, he was never constrained by it. When he saw a foolish war, an immoral war—like Vietnam—he stood ready to dissent. He was an unapologetic liberal and unwavering in his anti-war stance. These days, his kind is an endangered species on Capitol Hill and in the Democratic National Committee. McGovern died in 2012. His party, and the United States, are lesser for his absence.
Today’s Democrats are mostly avid hawks, probably to the right of Richard Nixon on foreign policy. They dutifully voted for Bush’s Iraq war. Then, they won back the White House and promptly expanded an unwinnable Afghan war. Soon, they again lost the presidency—to a reality TV star—and raised hardly a peep as Donald Trump expanded America’s aimless wars into the realm of the absurd.
I’ve long known this, but most liberals—deeply ensconced (or distracted) by hyper-identity politics—hardly notice. Still, every once in a while something reminds me of how lost the Democrats truly are.
AIPAC is a lobbying clique almost as savvy and definitely as effective as the NRA. Its meetings—well attended by mainstream Democrats and Republicans alike—serve as little more than an opportunity for Washington pols to kiss Benjamin Netanyahu’s ring and swear fealty to Israel. Most of the time, participants don’t dare utter the word “Palestinian.” That’d be untoward—Palestinians are the unacknowledged elephants in the room.
The far right-wing Israeli government of Netanyahu, who is little more than a co-conspirator and enabler for America’s failed project in the Middle East, should be the last group “liberals” pander to. That said, the state of Israel is a fact. Its people—just like the Palestinians—deserve security and liberty. Love it or hate it, Israel will continue to exist. The question is: Can Israel remain both exclusively Jewish and democratic? I’m less certain about that. For 50 years now, the Israeli military has divided, occupied and enabled the illegal settlement of sovereign Palestinian territory, keeping Arabs in limbo without citizenship or meaningful civil rights.
This is, so far as international law is concerned, a war crime. As such, unflinching American support for Israeli policy irreversibly damages the U.S. military’s reputation on the “Arab street.” I’ve seen it firsthand. In Iraq and Afghanistan, hundreds and thousands of miles away from Jerusalem, captured prisoners and hospitable families alike constantly pointed to unfettered U.S. support for Israel and the plight of Palestinians when answering that naive and ubiquitous American question: “Why do they hate us?”
Heck, even Gen. David “Generational War” Petraeus, once found himself in some hot water when—in a rare moment of candor—he admitted that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel.” Translation: U.S. policy toward Israel (and, no doubt, the foolhardy 2003 invasion of Iraq) make American soldiers less safe.
So does the basic post-9/11 American policy of sovereignty violation and expansive military intervention whenever and wherever Washington feels like it—so long as it’s in the name of fighting (you guessed it) “terrorism.” So, which “liberals” are raising hell and ringing the alarm bells for their constituents about Israeli occupation and America’s strategic overreach? Sen. Klobuchar? Hardly. She, and all but four Democrats, voted for the latest bloated Pentagon budget with few questions asked. Almost as many Republicans voted against the bill. So, which is the anti-war party these days? It’s hard to know.
Besides, the Dems mustered fewer than 30 votes in support of the Rand Paul amendment and his modest call to repeal and replace America’s outdated, vague Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). All Sen. Paul, a libertarian Republican, wanted to do was force a vote—in six months—to revisit the AUMF. This wasn’t radical stuff by any means. The failure of Paul’s amendment, when paired with the absolute dearth of Democratic dissent on contemporary foreign policy, proves one thing conclusively: There is no longer an anti-war constituency in a major American political party. The two-party system has failed what’s left of the anti-war movement.
So where are the doves now? On the fringe, that’s where. Screaming from the distant corners of the libertarian right and extreme left. No one cares, no one is listening, and they can hardly get a hearing on either MSNBC or Fox. It’s the one thing both networks agree on: endless, unquestioned war. Hooray for 21st century bipartisanship.
Still, Americans deserve more from the Democrats, once (however briefly) the party of McGovern. These days, the Dems hate Trump more than they like anything. To be a principled national party, they’ve got to be more than just anti-Trump. They need to provide a substantive alternative and present a better foreign policy offer. How about a do-less strategy: For starters, some modesty and prudent caution would go a long way.
In 1972, McGovern’s presidential campaign (as, to some extent, Bernie’s did) reached out to impassioned youth in the “New Left,” and formed a rainbow coalition with African-Americans and other minority groups. His Democrats were no longer the party of Cold War consensus, no longer the party of LBJ and Vietnam. No, McGovern’s signature issue was peace, and opposition to that disastrous war.
His campaign distributed pins and T-shirts bearing white doves. Could you even imagine a mainstream Democrat getting within 1,000 meters of such a symbol today? Of course not.
Today’s Dems are too frightened, fearful of being labeled “soft” (note the sexual innuendo) on “terror,” and have thus ceded foreign policy preeminence to the unhinged, uber-hawk Republicans. We live, today, with the results of that cowardly concession.
The thing about McGovern is that he lost the 1972 election, by a landslide. And maybe that’s the point. Today’s Democrats would rather win than be right. Somewhere along the way, they lost their souls. Worse still, they aren’t any good at winning, either.
Sure, they and everybody else “support the troops.” Essentially, that means the Dems will at least fight for veterans’ health care and immigration rights when vets return from battle. That’s admirable enough. What they won’t countenance, or even consider, is a more comprehensive, and ethical, solution: to end these aimless wars and stop making new veterans that need “saving.”
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense or the U.S. government.