That hero, McCain

by Michael O. Allen on August 19, 2008

The New York Times published a story on Sunday that had me scratching my head.

Timesman David D. Kirkpatrick’s piece, Response to 9/11 Offers Outline of McCain Doctrine, is not quite like the usual admiring pieces that we’ve come to expect from the mainstream media about McCain, explaining away obvious and prodigious faults while pumping up questionable actions as valorous. This piece contained actual criticisms of McCain, including from a retired general who was a former supporter of the Arizona senator before before breaking with him over the Iraq war.

Kirkpatrick, nevertheless, coated McCain in a heroic sheen. John McCain got to his Senate office in Washington, D.C. late on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, moments after terrorists flew the first plane into the World Trade Center.

McCain, that old warrior (at least, as the story would have you believe) immediately recognized this for what it was:

“This is war,” he was quoted as murmuring to aides, as the sound of scrambling fighter planes rattled windows and sent panic through the room.

I’m sure Mccain was not rattled. He is a war hero, remember?

“Within hours, Mr. McCain, the Vietnam War hero and famed straight talker of the 2000 Republican primary, had taken on a new role: the leading advocate of taking the American retaliation against Al Qaeda far beyond Afghanistan. In a marathon of television and radio appearances, Mr. McCain recited a short list of other countries said to support terrorism, invariably including Iraq, Iran and Syria.

“There is a system out there or network, and that network is going to have to be attacked,” Mr. McCain said the next morning on ABC News. “It isn’t just Afghanistan,” he added, on MSNBC. “I don’t think if you got bin Laden tomorrow that the threat has disappeared,” he said on CBS, pointing toward other countries in the Middle East.

Within a month he made clear his priority. “Very obviously Iraq is the first country,” he declared on CNN. By Jan. 2, Mr. McCain was on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in the Arabian Sea, yelling to a crowd of sailors and airmen: “Next up, Baghdad!”

KirkPatrick wrote this entire passage almost approvingly. He does not point out that none of the alleged 9/11 terrorists were Iranian or Iraqi, or that 14 or 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens, and that the financing for this “Attack on America” was wholly from the Saudi coffers.

That McCain was wrong in his analysis of the situation and wrong on the prescription to remedy the situation was also not part of the story. It was just another admiring piece that took pains to mention that McCain was “Vietnam War hero.”

“Now, as Mr. McCain prepares to accept the Republican presidential nomination, his response to the attacks of Sept. 11 opens a window onto how he might approach the gravest responsibilities of a potential commander in chief. Like many, he immediately recalibrated his assessment of the unseen risks to America’s security. But he also began to suggest that he saw a new “opportunity” to deter other potential foes by punishing not only Al Qaeda but also Iraq.

“Just as Sept. 11 revolutionized our resolve to defeat our enemies, so has it brought into focus the opportunities we now have to secure and expand our freedom,” Mr. McCain told a NATO conference in Munich in early 2002, urging the Europeans to join what he portrayed as an all but certain assault on Saddam Hussein. “A better world is already emerging from the rubble.”

To his admirers, Mr. McCain’s tough response to Sept. 11 is at the heart of his appeal. They argue that he displayed the same decisiveness again last week in his swift calls to penalize Russia for its incursion into Georgia, in part by sending peacekeepers to police its border.

His critics charge that the emotion of Sept. 11 overwhelmed his former cool-eyed caution about deploying American troops without a clear national interest and a well-defined exit, turning him into a tool of the Bush administration in its push for a war to transform the region.

“He has the personality of a fighter pilot: when somebody stings you, you want to strike out,” said retired Gen. John H. Johns, a former friend and supporter of Mr. McCain who turned against him over the Iraq war. “Just like the American people, his reaction was: show me somebody to hit.”

I mean this is a nightmare. Would America really let this happen? Elect McCain, a man even more unsuitable than George W. Bush, to the presidency?

The Obama campaign seized on a motif early in the campaign, saying that a vote for John McCain would be a vote for a third term for George W. Bush.

Let me offer another scenario: Karl Rove’s brass knuckle attack on McCain–you know, the one about him fathering a child with a black prostitute–did not work (after which Rove would have rolled out the crazed Manchurian candidate attack–they had already questioned Mccain’s patriotism, although not quite loudly yet; I would have loved to see what Karl Rove would have done to McCain’s hero status up close, in a hard-fought contest that the 2000 election would have been) and McCain emerged with the nomination and occupied the White House the last seven plus years.

What this Times story told me is that–and hard as this may be to imagine–America with McCain as president would have made all of the same mistakes that the administration of George W. Bush made in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

Our foreign policy would have been just as bellicose, if not more so. A president McCain would still have countenanced torture, shredded the Constitution, violated civil liberties, would have run just as inept a federal bureaucracy, betrayed the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, and been just as befuddled a steward of the economy.

The polls say McCain is within a striking distance of winning the presidency, an event that I find alarming.

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