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“The bullshit piled up so fast in Vietnam, you needed wings to stay above it.”—Apocalypse Now
We wrote about all of the outrageous lies perpetrated by Republican speakers on the second night of the convention. But none of these prevarications—and none of the speakers on the second night of the convention—not even the smirking nonentity that is Tim Pawlenty, nor the megalomaniacal governor of New Mexico, Susana “The little children vie to touch the hem of my garment” Martinez—approached the wild disingenuousness and genuine menace inherent to Senator John McCain’s address to the convention.
Following a serious work night for the Republicans—one in which speaking points (“We built this.” The U.S. must never “lead from behind.” The Democrats are the party of “grievance and entitlement.” Mitt Romney is “an honorable man.” Obama is robbing Medicare. Obama is waiving welfare work rules. “We’re out of money.”) were all hammered firmly into place. Paul Ryan and Mike Huckabee hauled serious water, dispensing with the Evangelical charge that Mitt Romney isn’t Christian, and absolving him, in Huckabee’s case, of not being Protestant. But the great work of the evening fell to McCain, who laid the foundation for what would be not only President Romney’s foreign policy, but his domestic policy.
McCain’s speech was contemptible. The Arizona senator had a last chance to regain his (always overrated) statesman mantle when President Obama reached out to him after the 2008 presidential election. McCain could easily have become the administration’s liaison to Republicans in Congress, or maybe even taken a post in the Obama cabinet—moves that might have gone a long way toward securing the genuinely bipartisan foreign policy that speakers in Tampa kept insisting existed in the United States from the end of World War II until 2009.
Hello? Joe McCarthy, anyone? Richard Nixon? Douglas MacArthur? “Who lost China?” “Dean Acheson’s College of Cowardly Communist Containment,” “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”?
There were some genuinely bipartisan figures in the G.O.P., but by and large Republicans, unable to compete in the domestic sphere after the New Deal, spent some fifty years beating the Democrats about the head and shoulders on foreign-policy issues. They vehemently opposed and publicly criticized nearly every single major Democratic foreign-policy initiative, including the formation of NATO, the Marshall Plan, the military draft, the Peace Corps, President Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Jimmy Carter’s human rights campaign, and even Bill Clinton’s bombing of Al Qaeda’s Afghanistan training camp, which was labeled an example of “wagging the dog.”
But then, for Republicans, the past is an entirely malleable proposition, one that may be rewritten as needed—when it is referred to at all. Think, for a moment, how many of the still-living former Republican presidential and vice-presidential nominees you’ve seen in prime time at this convention. The answer is none. Even John McCain—after spurning the Obama Administration’s overtures, submitting abjectly to the demands of the Tea Party, begging shamelessly for the endorsement of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party for one more, pointless term in the Senate—was shunted to a pre–nine o’clock speaking slot.
There may well be more to the snub than meets the eye, however. For what McCain delivered went well beyond his usual geriatric bitterness. It laid out the case for war, war, and more war.
He started with a talking point. In the United States, he said, we have always “led from the front, never from behind.” The claim is silly—designed, of course, to discredit the Obama Administration’s successful effort to snuff out Muammar Qaddafi and his regime. When we have led, McCain told us, it was always to “give voice to the voiceless,” and when “moved, by an abiding love of justice, to help others.” For McCain, “an American president always, always, always stands up for the rights, and freedoms, and justice of all people”—an incredible assertion for a Vietnam veteran to get past his lips. We were in Vietnam for “the justice of all people”? And Cambodia? And Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Chile, Guatemala, Zaire?
Yes, the United States has done a great deal of good in the world—overall, I would say, much more good than ill. But to ignore the copious blood on our hands neither expunges it nor keeps us from plunging again into such reckless, self-destructive ventures. Yet for the aged, shabby collection of resentments that is McCain in winter, such lessons must be ignored, if they were ever comprehended in the first place. For McCain, Obama’s chief sin has been to avoid standing up to Hamid Karzai’s hopelessly corrupt Afghan government and to the country’s ragbag council of tribal potentates.
I never thought I would live long enough to see a more hopeless situation for the United States than our almost decade-long attempt to sustain the Thi?u government in Vietnam. I was wrong. The Afghan government, to the extant that it exists at all, makes South Vietnam’s presiding hodgepodge of tin-pot generals, sky marshals, and heroin smugglers look like your local chamber of commerce. Our closest and most powerful “ally” in the area is Pakistan, a terrifyingly unstable nuclear power whose security apparatus has been actively discouraging our enemies from surrendering, in between enabling the slaughter of Indian civilians.
Somehow, John McCain thinks it can all be made to work. But it’s not just Afghanistan where McCain wants to rerun the Cold War era. Back in 2008, candidate McCain wanted us to roll into an old-style, Berlin Wall showdown over the Potemkin republic of Georgia. Four years later, he’s still calling for us to confront Russia and China, and charging that we are causing “our friends and allies—from Latin America to Asia, Europe to the Middle East, and especially in Israel, a nation under existential threat—to doubt America’s leadership.”
More specifically, we have “missed a historic opportunity to throw America’s full moral support behind an Iranian revolution that shared one of our highest interests: ridding Iran of a brutal dictatorship that terrorizes the Middle East and threatens the world.” In Syria, he points out that some 20,000 people may have been slaughtered already in “a savage and unfair fight,” and warns that, “Extremists are gaining ground. And the conflict is becoming more dangerous by the day for our allies, and for us.” Fair enough, but what does all this mean? Who are the “extremists” to whom McCain refers? The Al Qaeda fanatics fighting with the insurgents and against Syria’s odious dictator? By “our allies,” one assumes he means primarily Israel, but it’s hard to see just how that nation—or we—are truly threatened by chaos in a country that is the Iranian dictatorship’s strongest regional ally. This all makes for a decidedly murky and uncertain situation. Just the sort of mire, in other words, where we became bogged down in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Weirdly enough, in practically the next breath, McCain all but admitted this: “We are now being tested by an array of threats that are more complex, more numerous, and just as deeply and deadly, as any I can recall in my lifetime.”
Well, which is it? Are we facing complex, deadly threats unlike any we’ve ever known, or more of the black-and-white fights for freedom that beckon us to jump in and whale away?
In fact, the threats from foreign powers we are facing are probably less formidable than any we’ve seen in his lifetime. Iran, Syria, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, throw in Pakistan and North Korea . . . as serious as any and all of these threats might be, do they even vaguely compare to the Nazi war machine? A Stalin or a Mao armed with nuclear weapons?
And yet in the end, for McCain the solution is to dive into the next quagmire:
“People don’t want less of America. They want more,” he insists. “Everywhere I go in the world, people tell me they still have faith in America.” Really? More America is what they want in Syria? In Iran?
What is the motivation behind this strange call to war, no matter what? One can only conclude that it is the itching of a vestigial limb, the longing for the old military-industrial complex that rendered simple and reassuring not American foreign policy so much as American economics.
For what other economic policy can Mitt Romney have in mind? He has pledged himself to no new taxes and no new stimulus (at least labeled as such), to radical budget cuts and radical tax cuts, and even if he wished to change course on these promises, neither the ideologically rigid party that has grudgingly yielded him its nomination, nor the money men behind him, would ever accept such a change. And such a policy—a renewed shrinkage of public spending, combined with the continuing redistribution of wealth to the few and the already wealthy—will no more spark an economic renewal in the United States than it has in the United Kingdom or the European Union.
What alternative is possible, then, save for the one that John McCain so breezily advocates: a reversion to the old knee-jerk policy of continual war for continual profit?
On cue, the last night of the convention featured Mitt Romney’s glib promises to get missiles to Poland, to confront China, to show “more backbone” toward Russia, and to stop talking to Iran. The biggest actual threat to the future of the United States and the rest of the planet—man-made climate change—was reduced to a punch line.
The great triumph of John McCain’s life, from which all else has followed, is that he never succumbed to the grotesque totalitarian regime that captured and tortured him. Yet he and the party he champions want to send us back to the Hanoi Hilton, along a failed and ruinous path of proceeding in the world.
More from Kevin Baker:
Appreciation — June 26, 2014, 8:00 am
From Johnny Cash to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”
New York Revisited — June 19, 2014, 8:00 am
And how it foretold the 2008 financial crisis
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