I worry that too many recent posts on National Review Online — save Rich Lowry’s lucid defense of John McCain’s Iraq stance, for one — revel in bashing the Arizona senator, and minimizing the importance of what he did in the past two years to protect this country. And now, in South Carolina, as in 2000, shadowy forces like “Vietnam Veterans Against McCain” are doing their best to derail his candidacy.
Senator McCain may have his detractors in conservative circles on a host of issues, but criticisms of the senator’s War on Terror credentials are at best ill-informed, and at worst, disingenuous. In 2006 and 2007, almost no body, save the American GI, did more to protect this country — for decades to come — than John McCain.
How easy it is to forget just how bad things were in Iraq a year ago. And when the chips were down in Iraq, there was a lone voice in Washington arguing: “We need more troops, we need to change strategy, and we cannot surrender to al Qaeda.” It was John McCain.
I don’t take issue with the current Iraq war stance of any of the Republican contenders (save Ron Paul); in fact, most of them backed the surge strategy early on and I applaud them for that. But I don’t recall any of them leading the charge for a new strategy and a renewed commitment in 2006.
In late 2006 — smack dab in the middle of a political season — John McCain took the least politically expedient position possible on Iraq. At that time, McCain was the obvious Republican presidential front-runner, and Iraq was obviously a losing cause. McCain’s campaign had an air of inevitability, and the Iraq war looked like an inevitable failure. Why then, would he champion such a cause?
“Because I’d rather win a war, than win a campaign,” said McCain. And as Americans — and especially as conservatives — we should greet this statement, and his leadership, with full-throated praise. Especially if one understands Iraq’s centrality — today — to our country’s global war against radical Islamists. Iraq — today — is a “must win.”
America was going to lose in Iraq, and John McCain wouldn’t allow it. He would not allow Iraq to become another Vietnam. And he wouldn’t allow Al Qaeda to declare victory and endanger this country. John McCain helped prod this country to change policy — making him, ironically, the most important “change” candidate in this election.
We have a great many people on the ground in Iraq to thank for the dramatic turnaround this year, among them Petraeus, Crocker, U.S. troops, veterans, and many more. But this summer featured an equally dangerous fight (if not physically dangerous, than strategically dangerous) on Capitol Hill.
And on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Senator McCain fought the domestic forces of defeat and retreat. Without him — and a handful of other courageous Senators — today we might have a deadline for withdrawal in Iraq and ultimately a more vulnerable America. Americans — and especially conservatives — owe him a debt of gratitude.
The 2000 presidential primaries were my first real introduction to politics. And as a college student, I was drawn to McCain’s call to “serve a cause greater than one’s self.” It’s was McCain’s candidacy, and his calls for duty, honor, and country above personal pursuits, that did more than anything else to compel me to put on the uniform of this country.
Eight years later, much in America has changed, but John McCain’s lodestar hasn’t. He’s not perfect, but he places our country first — even when it’s politically unpopular. And now that the Iraq war has turned, he — and he alone — in this field of Republican candidates, deserves the credit.
With battles still left to be completed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and certainly more challenges to come, I want a commander-in-chief who will make the tough choices to keep this great country strong. John McCain’s heroic military past, and heroic Iraq stance, make him more than qualified for the job.
Take him on for other issues, but give the man his due for Iraq.
– Lt. Pete Hegseth, who served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division from 2005 to 2006, is executive director of Vets for Freedom.