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The Wars of John McCain

While many of his colleagues in the media have decided to focus on fairly trivial matters–even as they lacerate themselves for doing so–Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic decided to engage in some serious journalism. It comes in the form of his cover story in the current issue of The Atlantic, titled “The Wars of John McCain.”

Goldberg tells us about the “obvious, even eerie, parallels between Admiral John McCain’s steadfast commitment to victory in Vietnam, and Senator John McCain’s dogged pursuit of victory in Iraq.” McCain’s reflections on Vietnam are fascinating and at times piercing. McCain explains how losing the Vietnam war had a disintegrating effect on the military, including a spike in drug use, discipline problems, and racial tensions. This explains in part why McCain is so determined not to allow us to lose in Iraq. We also read about McCain’s intense unhappiness with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and General George Casey, who preceded General Petraeus as commander of American forces in Iraq (McCain tells Goldberg that Casey reminded him of a modern-day William Westmoreland). And Goldberg’s essay demonstrates that on the doctrine of preemption, McCain continues to hold firm. “For McCain, the doctrine of preemption clearly falls outside the realm of mere politics,” Goldberg writes, “as does the need to ‘win,’ rather than ‘end,’ wars; the safety of America demands that they be fought, and honor demands that they be won.”

Goldberg’s piece also includes this observation:

In my conversations with McCain, however, he never appeared greatly troubled by his shifts and reversals [on certain policies]. It’s not difficult to understand why: tax policy, or health care, or even off-shore oil drilling are for him all matters of mere politics, and politics calls for ideological plasticity. It is only in the realm of national defense, and of American honor–two notions that for McCain are thoroughly entwined–that he becomes truly unbending.

And this one (courtesy of Henry Kissinger):

“When I was in Vietnam for negotiations on implementing the Paris Agreement, the North Vietnamese prime minister had a dinner-I was leaving the next day-and he said if I wanted to take McCain on my flight, it could be arranged,” [Kissinger] said. “I told him that I won’t take McCain or anyone else on my plane. The prisoner release would have to happen on a schedule previously agreed. Somehow McCain heard about this and months later, at the White House reception for returned prisoners, he said to me, ‘I want to thank you for saving my honor.’ What McCain did not tell me at that time was that he had refused to be released two years earlier unless all were released with him. It was better for him to remain in jail in order to preserve his honor and American honor than to come home on my plane.”

McCain also reminded Goldberg of something I had forgotten about: On July 8, 2007, the New York Times endorsed an immediate pullout of America troops–even if one consequence of such a withdrawal would be genocide. According to the Times editorial, “Americans must be clear that Iraq, and the region around it, could be even bloodier and more chaotic after Americans leave. There could be reprisals against those who worked with American forces, further ethnic cleansing, even genocide.”

For those who have already forgotten how reckless some individuals and institutions were regarding the Iraq war, post-surge, this stunning editorial is worth recalling again. John McCain is a complicated figure. It’s nice that in the midst of a presidential election, a few insightful pieces on the candidates are still being published. This is one of them.



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