Whatever their disagreements on policy, United States senators, even in today’s hyperpolitical climate, are reluctant to impugn one another’s motives or integrity.
That’s doubly true among those who experienced combat in the Vietnam War, a group that now includes four sitting senators — the Republicans John McCain and Chuck Hagel and the Democrats John Kerry and Jim Webb — as well as former colleagues like Bob Kerrey, Max Cleland and Chuck Robb. These men share an obvious bond, and over the years they have more readily crossed partisan lines than other senators, constituting, in some ways, a party unto themselves.
he war in Iraq has tested some of these friendships, however. Last year, after House Democrats voted to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, McCain and Webb — both of whom were featured heroes in a classic book on the era, Robert Timberg’s "Nightingale’s Song" — became embroiled in an unusually public disagreement. After McCain pointedly said the enemy in Iraq was celebrating along with Democrats, Webb accused him of unfairly questioning other people’s patriotism. When Webb and Hagel (a close personal friend of McCain’s) proposed a bill to give troops leaving Iraq and Afghanistan more time at home before redeploying, McCain, whose 19-year-old son has served with the Marines in Iraq, forcefully opposed them, saying the troops were needed in the theater. More recently, McCain has found himself on the opposite side of Webb and Hagel again, this time over their "G.I. bill" that would offer education money to every returning veteran. McCain and others want a more limited bill that would encourage rank-and-file soldiers to re-enlist rather than return to civilian life.
In these skirmishes, McCain is the outlier. Among his fellow combat veterans in the Senate, past and present, he is the only one who has continued to champion the war in Iraq; by contrast, Kerry, Webb and Hagel have emerged in the years since the invasion as unsparing critics of American involvement there. (In a new book, Hagel, who voiced deep concerns about Iraq even as he voted for the war resolution in 2002, predicts that the war will turn out to be "the most dangerous and costly foreign-policy debacle in our nation’s history.")
Max Cleland talks about his friendship with McCain, but then goes on to say:
"I have seen this movie before, and I know how it ends," says Cleland, who lost three of his limbs to an errant grenade during the battle of Khe Sanh. "With thousands dead and tens of thousands more injured, and years later you ask yourself what you were doing there. To the extent my friend John McCain signs on to this, he is endangering America’s long-term interests, and probably his own election in the fall."
But it isn't just vets who are Democrats who disagree with McCain:
In his book, Chuck Hagel writes of listening to declassified tapes from the mid-1960s in which Lyndon Johnson admitted to advisers that Vietnam probably couldn’t be won but rued that withdrawal would make him the first American president to lose a war. "I wish someone had told me when I was sitting on a burning tank in a Vietnamese rice paddy that I was fighting for a lost cause just to save a president’s legacy," Hagel observes acidly. Although McCain was held and tortured for the same cause, he never saw the situation the way Hagel did...
The lesson McCain and other conservatives took away from this version of history is that America was driven from Vietnam principally because the voters, discouraged by dire reports from a skeptical media, lost their will. McCain has said in the past that he felt the war could have been won had the right strategy been followed sooner. When I met with McCain last month for a far-ranging conversation about Vietnam and Iraq, I asked him whether he still felt this was the case. "These are all hypotheticals," he replied. "But I think that if we had employed the strategy that Creighton Abrams put into effect when he relieved General Westmoreland" — that is, if the Abrams strategy had been used years earlier — "then at least the casualties would have been dramatically different."
I know McCain has been an ally of William Kristol, but had forgotten he had supported Chalabi:
McCain’s more ambitious view of American power made him a natural ally of neoconservative thinkers like William Kristol, the editor of the fledgling Weekly Standard (now a New York Times columnist), and Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Empowered during the Reagan era, the neocons were largely shoved aside during the ’90s by the more isolationist, anti-Clinton voices who dominated Republican politics. By the time McCain expanded his circle of influence to include Kristol and other neocons in the late ’90s, they had rallied around a single unifying cause: the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. In 1998, McCain was one of the sponsors of the Iraq Liberation Act, signed into law by Bill Clinton, which officially changed American policy from containing Hussein to deposing him, and he became a leading figure in the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a lobbying group founded by Randy Scheunemann, who is now his chief foreign policy adviser. McCain met with Ahmad Chalabi, the smooth Iraqi dissident who was a favorite of the neocons, and supported him publicly.
It is a long piece that hopefully will be read widely. When the inevitable GOP attacks come on Iraq, Obama, and patriotism, it will be important to get intelligent people to read this article.
If you have any questions about the piece, you can send them to Bai and he might answer them in his non-blog.