If there's any lesson that voters might want to take with them into the voting booth this November, it is this: That a proud and distinguished military career, and even bravery in a combat situation, is no guarantee of the kind of political courage that America needs in its future leaders.
The issue at hand may be John McCain, but for a case study we can look no further than Colin Powell. Some 15 years ago, Powell was the kind of guy you'd want to name your kid's elementary school after. A Vietnam veteran who moved up the ranks and became National Security Advisor and chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff, he was viewed as a moderate who -- according to most accounts -- usually pushed diplomatic solutions over military ones, and developed the Powell Doctine aimed at winning any wars that were fought with miminal casualties.
All good, but when he became Secretary of State he made it clear that loyalty was his strong point, while backbone was lacking. The low point came in February 2003 when Powell went before the United Nations and made a case for war that convinced many moderates to support it, when he himself (reported later) didn't actually believe all the evidence. In fact, he was arguing privately against the war, and later admitted his presentation was "a blot"; in 2007 he even tried to claim that "I argued against the war" -- even though his only contribution that mattered was to make it happen, 4,000 dead Americans and many more dead Iraqs later.
That is bad enough -- but I find this revelation from last night's ABC News article to be astounding:
The high-level discussions about these "enhanced interrogation techniques" were so detailed, these sources said, some of the interrogation sessions were almost choreographed -- down to the number of times CIA agents could use a specific tactic.
The advisers were members of the National Security Council's Principals Committee, a select group of senior officials who met frequently to advise President Bush on issues of national security policy.
At the time, the Principals Committee included Vice President Cheney, former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, as well as CIA Director George Tenet and Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Well, I can't wait for Powell's next Barbara Walters appearance so he tell us how he pleaded with Cheney and the others not to do this, either. Give me a break. Anyone who sat in those meetings and didn't stop America on the path to torture is just as guilty as those who proposed it in the first place. And that includes not only Powell but former attorney general John Ashcroft, whose reported quote that "History will not judge this kindly" will be in your grandchild's textbook.
I bring up Powell for two reasons:
1) As noted in the lead-in, McCain is going to bash voters over the head for the next seven months over his biography, especially the years in which he himself suffered as a prisoner-of-war in Hanoi. He deserves a lot of credit for that as a person, but in the political arena he needs to be judged on his political leadership on current issues like Iraq, which isn't nearly as unimpeachable.
2) Powell's been all over the news today for another reason -- because he's said nice things about Barack Obama and hinted he might even endorse him:
Powell's answer to the critique that Obama lacks executive experience: "He didn't have a lot of experience in running a presidential campaign, did he."
That's nice that Powell says nice things about Obama, but if the Illinois senator is serious about ending the war in Iraq, restoring America's credibility in the world, and ending the condoning of torture and related practices, then he should not be soliciting any kind of endorsement from Powell.
Quite the contrary, to use the best buzzphrase of the 2008 campaign: He should reject and denounce.