VoteVets.org Crosses the Line

Anyone paying attention to veterans’ issues on Capitol Hill these days has no doubt heard of VoteVets.org.

During the Bush administration, this group was a thorn in the side of the Republican pro-war agenda that put millions of servicemen and women through the meat grinder in Iraq and Afghanistan. It exposed and derided scandalous weaknesses in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) mental health care system, called for the closing of Gitmo, and fought for the modernization of the GI Bill so that vets could actually go to college as Uncle Sam promised.

So today we are forced to ask one simple question of VoteVets: what’s up with you?

Though technically it is a non-partisan 401(c)(4) organization (that’s Washington-speak for a political non-profit), VoteVets also has a political action committee (PAC) dedicated to electing veterans to Congress. The group’s preferred candidates happen to be Democrats who subscribe to a "progressive" agenda, particularly on issues of national security and foreign policy. The millions of dollars VoteVets has spent in the last two election cycles also paid for negative campaign ads against Republicans in tight races, including the 2008 presidential contest. Fine. Over the last several years, that mission has seemed almost necessary in terms of providing pushback against the influential neoconservative-dominated national security establishment in Washington.

But then comes this new advertising campaign, and for the first time, VoteVets.org looks less like a veterans’ lobby than a full-fledged water-carrier for Democratic interests on Capitol Hill. Not only that, VoteVets.org is employing the same dirty rhetorical tricks that neoconservative hawks invoked to get us into Iraq and Afghanistan – and now possibly Iran:

There are so many things wrong with this advertisement that one wonders if the smartypants at the American Enterprise Institute put it out themselves and slapped the VoteVets.org logo on it. Indeed, the minute it hit the airways back in March, you could almost hear Michael Ledeen and Frank Gaffney giggling gleefully from either side of the Potomac. Liz Cheney might as well have canceled an ad buy in her own Keep America Safe campaign to save some money.

All joking aside, it is troubling to see a group that has been forthright about taking care of the grunts in the field and veterans in our communities indulging in stale neoconservative tropes to appeal to Americans’ base prejudices and fears, all to win a debate over climate-change legislation that the American public has yet to see, much less absorb and weigh in on.

It’s just another example of how seductive Washington politics can be, and how off-putting it is to see veterans exploited, once again, for political gain.

Fellow Antiwar.com columnist and intelligence expert Phil Giraldi had this to say about the ad: "I don’t have any problem with supporting clean energy, though I wonder what that has to do with VoteVets, unless it is a lobbying effort to get groups behind Obama’s next domestic program, which might be the intention of this promotion."

That seems to be how it’s shaping up, given that the ads are part of a $3 million campaign to promote clean energy legislation favored by progressive Democrats in Congress. The group is also targeting a "bipartisan" package being crafted by Senators John Kerry (D), Lindsey Graham (R), and Joe Lieberman (I), which VoteVets say is too stacked in favor of Big Oil and takes the federal government out of regulating greenhouse gases. No doubt that is why it is running these emotionally stoked and muscular energy ads in swing districts across the country.

"Three years ago, VoteVets would have never used the word ‘enemy’ in an ad like this," pointed out Inter Press News Service correspondent Gareth Porter. Now we know why. Making a vote against Big Oil a patriotic act against the "Iranian menace" might prove useful in shaming members who do not agree with the planks in their preferred energy agenda.

Is Energy a Veterans’ Issue?

VoteVets.org chairman John Soltz, who as an Iraq vet has been an effective critic of the war overseas (indeed, VoteVets opposed the current surge of 30,000 troops into Afghanistan), recently repeated his group’s cock-eyed brief on MSNBC. "We have states like Iran who are then earning money off our demand and passing that off to terrorist organizations across the Middle East," he told liberal host Ed Schultz, who flashed a graphic of a poll commissioned by VoteVets.org [.pdf] that conveniently found 73 percent of veterans in favor of "clean energy legislation."

Come again?

Simply put, the liberal-leaning VoteVets hired Lake Research Partners, a Democratic polling firm, to gin up this issue as a priority for American veterans. But is it really? The question that elicited the 73 percent positive response was this: "Do you favor or oppose a comprehensive clean energy and climate bill that invests in clean, renewable energy sources in America and limits carbon pollution in the atmosphere?"

Sure, a majority of Democrats, Republicans, and independents favor it, according to the poll, but it tells us virtually nothing about what the respondents want specifically, much less that a plan by progressive Democrats in Washington is at all preferred. We all know veterans are not a monolithic group, and while most would agree they want their VA benefits on time and a GI Bill that works, to suggest they all support federal regulation of greenhouse gases and so-called "cap and trade" measures is quite presumptuous.

Liberal Backlash

Despite the campaign’s progressive goals, the ad itself has certainly left the group’s loyal liberal supporters scratching their heads. Wrote pundit Taylor Marsh in March:

"Well, if you wanted to give Sarah Palin’s bomb, bomb, bomb Iran team a freebie, the new Vote Vets ad is it. However, it’s supposed to be about Congress getting us off oil and on to clean energy in order to keep us out of real life energy wars. Instead it serves up powerful visuals and a narrative that promotes going straight at Iran.

"[T]he ad is a cynical appeal using fear about Iran, specifically, through EFPs [explosively formed penetrators] to get the job done. Vote Vets could have begun the ad the way you ended it, immediately making the oil-clean energy connection, but didn’t. You purposefully chose to focus on the fear card and the Iran boogieman, complete with a picture of Ahmadinejad, before making your clean energy pitch, because you thought that would get the attention. … But they got the emotional appeal exactly backwards, stressing Iranian dangers instead of energy dependence and they did it deliberately."

To which VoteVets.org representative Richard Allen Smith immediately responded on Marsh’s Web site, "Being that we also created StopIranWar.com, if we’re trying to convince anyone the US should invade Iran, we’re doing a pretty terrible job."

Sadly, when you click onto StopIranWar.com on the VoteVets.org Web site, there’s nothing to see. Not sure what that is all about. Smith also wrote: "What is dishonest in the ad? Point to one assertion that is untrue."

Is the ad untrue? Depends on whom you ask. Dishonest? Certainly. I reached out to VoteVets.org media relations man Eric Schmeltzer over the weekend to get some background on the assertion that for every $1 increase in oil on the global market, the government of Iran gets another $1.5 billion in annual revenue, and moreover, that any increase in oil revenue goes directly to the Iranian manufacture of EFPs used against U.S. forces in Iraq or, by extension, Afghanistan.

He said he’d get back to me on the first part of the question but added that the "claim about EFPs is consistent, it says they were created in Iran, which they were. Now, most insurgents have the ability to make them. But the originals came from Iran."

Schmeltzer might have been suggesting that VoteVets never claimed Iran was directly supplying weapons to hurt our troops, but the ad certainly insinuates that linkage. Soltz also made the charge more directly on his MSNBC appearance on April 8.

I am going to assume then, that in part, the basic premise of the advertisement was culled from this August 2009 report [.pdf] by the Center for American Progress, which is displayed prominently on the VoteVets.org Web site as an accompanying resource in the clean-energy campaign:

"America’s oil dependence has other indirect but no less serious impacts on U.S. interests. For example, high rates of American consumption drive up global demand for oil, which fuels lofty prices and helps to fund and to sustain undemocratic and corrupt regimes. Because of this anti-Western nations such as Iran – with whom the United States by law cannot trade or buy oil – benefit regardless of who the end buyer of the fuel is. …

"Reducing U.S. oil demand in the world market would be a big financial hit to Iran and other unfriendly petrostates."

The Iranian Connection

Giraldi called this linking of the production and deployment of IEDs to U.S. consumption of oil "largely baloney."

"The IED technology is simple and has been adapted everywhere from Northern Ireland (where it originated) to today’s Afghanistan. There is no evidence whatsoever that money used to buy oil goes to terrorists (we are funding them directly through bribes paid to move our equipment and supplies in AfPak) and that Iran is profiting thereby and killing our soldiers. What a load of nonsense!"

"There has never been any proof that the Iranian government has any connection with EFPs or other militarized activity in Iraq or Afghanistan. Zero. Nada," complained war correspondent Dahr Jamail in an e-mail exchange. "It seems funny they are resurrecting a long-since defunct Bush propaganda tactic … seems to me like they could use a new PR person – someone a little more savvy."

The military of course has been trying to establish such a link for years. In 2008, the U.S. captured several Iranian agents associated with the so-called Iranian "Special Groups" in Iraq. Also in 2008, military officials said they had evidence that sources within Iran were supplying rogue Shia militias with EFPs, while in 2007, President George W. Bush charged that the Iranian Quds Force, a unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, was causing unrest and supporting the insurgency in Iraq.

Many of the broader linkages have been maintained and promulgated to this day through neoconservative think-tanks and publications such as the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, The Long War Journal, and The Weekly Standard.

However, a report this March [.pdf] by the Congressional Research Service found that while Iran maintained a high and complicated level of political influence in Iraq, the charges regarding its connection to militant activity over the border were simmering down.

Meanwhile, links between Iran and EFP attacks against Westerners in Afghanistan are tenuous. In fact, despite reports about Iranian-made weapons in the hands of the Taliban, Gen. Stanley McChrystal was forced to tell reporters just four days ago that he has no evidence the Iranian government is channeling weapons or fighters into Afghanistan.

But back to the VoteVets advertisement.

It is so hard to stomach because not only does it indicate the group’s willingness to compromise its standards of truth in order to win over votes in a problematic legislative battle, but it is cynically using our feelings about veterans and our fears of war to do it.

Which is disappointing, since Soltz was one of the first people with Iraq credentials to weigh in publicly on the unexpected resignation of Navy Adm. William Fallon in 2008. Fallon, who was considered one of the military’s most important bulwarks against a neoconservative drive toward war with Iran, said he felt he had to resign after his views were showcased in an April 2008 article in Esquire.

This is what Soltz had to say at the time:

"Let’s call a spade a spade here. Admiral Fallon has not so quietly had severe disagreements with the White House on our Iraq policy, how it impacts the region and global war on terror, for which he is largely responsible, and warning against war with Iran.

"Just one year into his tenure as CENTCOM commander, Fallon resigned today, and you can read into it nothing more than a resignation in protest. …

"Another voice of reason bites the dust."

Please, Soltz, don’t let VoteVets.org be yet another voice of reason to bite the dust. Continue to elect Democratic veterans to Congress if you must. Keep fighting for energy independence, for sure. But leave the neoconservative appeals and the gratuitous use of veterans out of it. As Gareth Porter said so succinctly, it may be "the politically clever thing to do, but never make hash out of the truth – it’ll come back to bite you."

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime
political reporter for FoxNews.com and
a contributing editor at The American Conservative.
She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.