What Straight Talk?

John McCain spent four years in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp. He touts his military experience, “the incredible story of a true American hero who is singularly prepared to lead.”

And there are some who are ready to believe him. Most polls, for instance, show that voters have a favorable impression of the Arizona Republican, with most giving him a slight edge in a matchup against Democrat Hillary Clinton and only a small deficit to make up against Barack Obama.

I’ve witnessed this perplexing faith in McCain firsthand. A couple of months ago, in the newsroom of my paper, an editor that I respect weighed in during a conversation about the upcoming New Jersey primary. “McCain is the only one I trust not to do something militarily,” he said.

The question is why. It’s not as if his recent record backs up this misplaced trust. As Eugene Robinson pointed out in a February op-ed in the Washington Post, McCain is taking “positions that most voters reject,” while tying himself to an increasingly irrelevant incumbent. McCain remains very much in favor of the Iraq War, a supporter of the long-war theory that could have us stuck in the desert sands indefinitely with little to gain.

George Bush’s approval ratings have fallen below 30% in many polls and about 60% of Americans view the war in Iraq as a mistake.

Not John McCain.

“As long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed, it’s fine with me and I hope it would be fine with you if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world where al Qaeda is training, recruiting, equipping and motivating people every single day,” he told a town forum audience in New Hampshire in January.

And he has repeatedly said that the war was not a mistake, only the manner in which it has been waged by President Bush.

“If we surrender and wave a white flag,” he said in California, “like Senator Clinton wants to do, and withdraw, as Governor Romney wanted to do, then there will be chaos, genocide, and the cost of American blood and treasure would be dramatically higher.”

Higher than what? We’ve already witnessed everything McCain says will follow our withdrawal. And while there has been some nominal improvement in conditions, the improvement seems to come in waves with calm being followed by periods of extreme violence.

McCain, as Robinson said, has wed himself to a catastrophe, one he says we must continue.

Iraq unfortunately offers a clue into how McCain would deal with other foreign policy threats. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. criticized McCain in February for what is an essentially narrow and dangerous world view governed by an obsession with “radical Islamic extremists” that excludes nearly everything else.

“Presumably,” Dionne wrote, “he’s saying that Islamic extremism is more important than everything else — the rise of China and India as global powers, growing resistance to American influence in Europe, the weakening of America’s global economic position, the disorder and poverty in large parts of Africa, the alienation of significant parts of Latin America from the United States. Is it in our national interest for all these issues to take a back seat to terrorism?”

I know people who would answer “yes” to this question, but the fact remains that terrorism is not an ideology and our battle with it has to be part of a larger, more comprehensive approach to the world. While Osama bin Laden makes for a nice poster boy for extremism, the inferno that has been blazing in Iraq — and in Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank, etc. — is a result of a power imbalance between the West and the developing world and between the rich and the rest of us. Equalize the power relationship – with more democracy, of course (though, not by the barrel of a gun), but also through more sharing of resources and a greater willingness on the part of the remaining great power to listen and cooperate with other nations — and you have a chance to neutralize the disaffection that results in car bombings.

But McCain, who says he wants to address global warming, who says he wants to improve diplomacy, can’t see past a war on terror that has done little to make us safer and instead has made the world a lot more unstable and dangerous.

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press (both in central New Jersey). Email See his blog, Channel Surfing, at

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2008

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