McCain Weakened By War Support
Wednesday - February 06, 2008
Eight years ago, when Arizona Sen. John McCain made his first bid for the White House, I praised him in this lonely space.
My enthusiasm for McCain was a result, among other things, of reading two books: his startlingly good memoir of growing up the son and grandson of admirals, Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir; and Robert Timberg’s The Nightingale’s Song.
In the first, McCain and aide Mark Salter wrote of a grandfather who commanded an aircraft carrier in World War II and a father who served as the commander in chief, Pacific-Asia Command. Like both of them, McCain attended the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. Unlike them, he did not do well there.
But he made it to naval flight school and to Vietnam - where his plane was shot down over Hanoi. As a prisoner of war, McCain suffered six harrowing years of physical and mental torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese. That part of McCain’s book is difficult to read.
Faith of My Fathers ends with McCain’s return to the United States. There Timberg picks up McCain’s story - and that of four other Annapolis graduates and Vietnam veterans: Robert McFarlane, John Poindexter, Oliver North and James Webb.
Vietnam, to one degree or another, haunted them all. In the National Security Adviser’s office of Ronald Reagan’s White House, McFarlane, Poindexter and North became embroiled in the Iran-Contra mess of the mid-1980s. Timberg insinuates that their bitterness over the failure of the politicians of the 1960s to support the military to victory in Vietnam resulted in their extra-legal actions in the NSA’s office.
Timberg sees McCain differently. He returned to the United States - if not unscarred - at least whole. Vietnam didn’t obsess him; it didn’t become his only frame of reference.
McCain won a seat in Congress, then in the United States Senate. In both bodies, while maintaining solid conservative credentials, he demonstrated a willingness to reach across the aisle to Democrats: not often, but frequently enough to stand out in a bleak age of ideological rigidity.
That cost McCain, of course. In 2000, George W. Bush, an undistinguished presidential son with a distinguished name, cleaved to the religious right and white base of the Republican Party and won its nomination.
Bush gave the nation an unwanted, unjustified and unnecessary war and eight years of unmatched presidential incompetence. McCain supported that war from the outset; and, not so long ago, walked through the streets of Baghdad in a flak jacket surrounded by a platoon of soldiers and security guards - and announced the country safe.
That is patently untrue. The 20 or so American soldiers who have died in the past two weeks and the scores of Iraqis who’ve been blown up testify in blood to the dangers of life in Iraq.
The surge, which McCain proudly and loudly supported, has dampened the violence. But others - military men like Hawaii’s Gen. Eric Shinseki - knew before the Iraq invasion began that more boots on the ground were needed to defeat Saddam Hussein’s army and to secure and reconstruct the country. McCain, who proclaims himself now best-suited to be commander in chief, was strangely silent when Shinseki testified five long years ago.
From what I’ve read about McCain, I’d like to think a President McCain in 2003 would never have invaded Iraq - that he would have finished the task in Afghanistan, captured Osama bin Laden and not used the events of Sept. 11 as the pretext for a neoconservative crusade. Unlike Bush, McCain knew what havoc war wreaks. Unlike Bush, he’s never been the prisoner of older, seemingly wiser men. McCain’s prison had bars on it, not the restraints of an undeveloped and incurious mind.
But there was another lesson to be learned in Vietnam. Sen. J. William Fulbright called it “the arrogance of power” - that with all our wealth and all our might, we cannot police the world. We cannot right all wrongs. We cannot turn everyone, everywhere, into democrats - or capitalists.
James Webb, Vietnam veteran and the junior United States senator from Virginia, seems to have absorbed that lesson. In 2006 he won his place calling for an end to the war in Iraq.
McCain hasn’t. As I write, he appears on the verge of securing the Republican nomination for president. McCain is probably the best man in the Republican race; but he is terribly, terribly wrong about this war. And I hope, at some point, he realizes it.
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