McCain’s Only Path to the White House

By Kevin Zeese

Senator John McCain has only one issue with the chance of uniting the Republican base and presenting a challenge to the Democrats in the General Election – war and more of it.

Senator McCain describes the “war” against “Islamic extremism” as the “transcendent challenge of the 21st century.” He describes Iraq as a war the U.S. must win and has promised there are “more wars to come.” He supports the use of military force against Iran, even singing about bombing Iran jokingly. And he has described the U.S. stay in Iraq as something that could last 100 years and be fine with him. Pat Buchanan says that “McCain makes Cheney look like Gandhi.”

McCain knows the election needs to be framed around the question he describes as “who can best make this nation safer?” If the presidential debate is about “change,” McCain looses. If it is about the “war against Islamic extremism” it plays to his strong suit. As a result the McCain campaign presents an opportunity for the peace movement to debate whether American militarism is appropriate, effective and the best use of U.S. resources.

Militarism comes naturally to the military-minded McCain. Sen. McCain was literally borne into the military – born on a military base in the Panama Canal Zone in 1936 and his first ten years of school were on military bases. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1956, sixth from the bottom in a class of 899. He graduated from flight school in 1960 and became a naval pilot. After nearly dying in an accident aboard an aircraft carrier he told the N.Y. Times in 1967 that “I always wanted to be in the Navy. I was born into it and I never really considered another profession.”

Indeed, his grandfather, John McCain, Sr. joined the Navy in 1907 and in World War II fought in Japan as a Vice Admiral. The stress of combat resulted in his weight dropping to 100 pounds by the end of the war. He was awarded a full admiralty posthumously. His father, John McCain, Jr. was also an admiral who fought in World War II, headed the Pacific Command during Vietnam and served in various Pentagon posts. The USS John S. McCain is named after Sen. McCain’s father and grandfather. Two of his sons, Jimmy and Jack, are now in the military.

McCain was a prisoner of war in Vietnam from 1967 to 1973 where he was reportedly tortured and beaten while being held in captivity. He remains crippled from the experience. He was forced to make propaganda statements on camera, he gave in to this at times while at other times resisting. While in captivity he refused to meet with anti-war groups visiting Vietnam. He retired from the Navy in 1981 as a captain. One of his final posts was as the Navy liaison to the U.S. Senate. He has served on the Senate Armed Services Committee since his election to the U.S. Senate in 1987 (replacing Barry Goldwater).

McCain voted for the Iraq War Resolution describing Iraq as “a clear and present danger to the United States of America.” He agreed with President Bush saying that the U.S. would be treated as liberators in Iraq, but by November 2003 was criticizing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s handling of the war arguing more troops were needed. The “surge” is often described as McCain’s plan since he was a vociferous advocate for more troops in Iraq. He continues to argue that the only way the U.S. can end the Iraq war is in victory. He frames the Iraq debate as: “Withdrawal and fail, or commit and succeed.”

With this history, Sen. McCain is well positioned to be the “war” candidate and to make the campaign about winning in Iraq and fighting the “terrorists” throughout the world. He has serious differences with the Republican base on immigration, campaign finance, judicial appointments and taxes so the ‘war on terror’ and the need to fight in Iraq to win seems to be the only issue that can unite the Republican base behind him.

And, in the General Election McCain is poised to challenge the Democrats on the issue of war and peace. He is critical of Senators Clinton and Obama for calling for withdrawal timetables – even though neither senator has ever called for a complete withdrawal. McCain’s desire to win the presidency on the back of the war presents an opportunity for peace advocates. McCain will be talking to a voting public that opposes the Iraq War and wants to see troops coming home, even one-quarter of Republicans oppose the war.

Ironically, just as the election of President Reagan was helped by the Iranian hostage situation, another terrorist attack against the United States would be likely to help Sen. McCain. The fear generated by such an attack would be apt to push Americans to the experienced warrior as commander in chief. To add further irony, those who oppose the United States and want to do it harm, would find Senator McCain prone to draw the U.S. into another costly quagmire that would further weaken the nation. McCain very much believes in using the military. I recall being at a New Republic editorial board meeting in 2003 where John McCain, even then, was advocating the use of the military against Iran.

The election will be a time to highlight the choice America has before it: will it continue to invest in a massive military – the most powerful and expensive in world history at a time when the U.S. civilian economy is struggling, losing jobs overseas, has a crumbling infrastructure, poverty rising and the middle class shrinking? How much more should be invested in Iraq — $495 billion so far, plus more than a trillion in long-term costs on taking care of injured soldiers and paying the debt on the war? Should a third or even fourth front be opened up in Iran and Pakistan while both Afghanistan and Iraq falter? Should militarism be the centerpiece of American foreign policy or should it be diplomacy, negotiation and multilateralism?

While the two remaining Democrats are far from being peace candidates they do present an alternative to McCain as both are calling for withdrawal of some troops as soon as they are elected. And, Senator Obama provided a framing of the debate that can be a useful starting point for discussion when he said he wants to “end the mindset that got us into the war.” And with Cynthia McKinney running as a clear peace candidate for the Green Party nomination; Ralph Nader, a long-term anti-war advocate considering a run either as a Green or independent and the Libertarian Party running several candidates on its anti-war platform – peace voters will have plenty to work with in the 2008 election.

The peace movement needs to be ready to make this election a real debate on the future of American militarism. The year is an opportunity to educate the public about the cost U.S. militarism, the ineffectiveness of the approach and more effective alternatives to achieving national security. It needs to be a time to organize peace voters and get them ready to be a “pressure force” in U.S. politics that cannot be ignored no matter who is elected president in November.

– Kevin Zeese is Executive Director of Voters For Peace (www.VotersForPeace.US). He contributed this article to

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