McCain Should Know Better

John McCain seems to be running for president on the basis of his status as a former North Vietnamese prisoner of war. Rudy Giuliani said in his speech at the Republican National Convention that McCain’s refusal to accept early release showed he’s a man “who believes in serving a cause greater than self-interest.” In his speech, Fred Thompson said McCain’s time in the “Hanoi Hilton” revealed “the kind of character that civilizations from the beginning of history have sought in their leaders: strength, courage, humility, wisdom duty, [and] honor.”

McCain wrapped up his speech in St. Paul with his own analysis of how that ordeal prepared him for the job of running the United States. “I was never the same again,” he said. “I wasn’t my own man anymore, I was my country’s.”

Democrats have shot back, arguing that McCain’s “heroism” nearly 40 years in the past in no way qualifies him for president. Left-wing filmmaker Robert Greenwald released a new TV ad featuring Philip Butler, one of McCain’s fellow POWs. In it, Butler argues that the Arizona senator “was well-known as a very volatile guy” and not somebody he wants to see “with his finger near the red button.” In a separate article published widely on the Internet, Butler (who was held as POW two years longer than McCain) wrote, “John’s views on war, foreign policy, economics, environment, health care, education, national infrastructure, and other important areas are much the same as those of the Bush administration.”

As a journalist who has reported extensively from both Iraq and Vietnam, I see a third picture of John McCain, one who is quickly abandoning many of the lessons he learned in that hellish prison cell as part of his increasingly unprincipled quest for the presidency. It’s sad to see, because John McCain should know better.

Freed by Peace Talks

More than any other leading politician, McCain should know that peace talks can be stronger and smarter than bombs, that withdrawing American soldiers can be the best way to achieve stability, and that the best way to protect American troops is to bring them home from the war zone.

John McCain should know, because he has lived this experience. After being held for nearly six years and tortured in a North Vietnamese prison, Lt. Cmdr. McCain was freed – not by a daring commando raid on an enemy compound but by a negotiated settlement arrived at in peace talks in Paris. President Richard Nixon agreed to remove U.S. troops from Vietnam within 60 days, and the North Vietnamese government agreed to release American POWs like McCain as those troops were withdrawn.

John McCain should know that no one wins in the destruction of war. As Michael Moore points out, the four-year-long carpet-bombing of North Vietnam, which John McCain engaged in, resulted in the destruction of bridges, power plants, homes, schools, and hospitals. “In the midst of the campaign, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara estimated that we were killing 1,000 civilians a week,” Moore noted. “That’s more than one 9/11 every single month – for 44 months.”

As a young man on the front lines John McCain questioned the morality of this destruction.. Even before he was shot down during a bombing run over Hanoi, the admiral’s son had questioned the human costs of armed conflict. In 1967, after McCain nearly died following a massive weapons malfunction and fire in the Gulf of Tonkin, the young Navy man told New York Times reporter R.W. Apple: “It’s a difficult thing to say. But now that I’ve seen what the bombs and the napalm did to the people on our ship, I’m not so sure that I want to drop any more of that stuff on North Vietnam.”

Renewing Relations With Vietnam

McCain should know that yesterday’s enemy can be tomorrow’s ally and that alliances can be struck even after the United States is defeated on the field of battle. During the 1980s, McCain was one of the strongest advocates of establishing diplomatic relations with Communist Vietnam at a time when leaders of both political parties feared an angry backlash for simply talking to the other side.

In 1985, John McCain traveled to Hanoi to see Communist Vietnam for himself. He understood the value of putting the past behind him.

“When I arrived in Hanoi, I was excited to learn that my hosts had arranged for me a night’s rest at Ho [Chi Minh]’s villa in exotic Ha Long Bay,” McCain wrote in his 2002 memoir, Worth Fighting For. “As I … laid my head on the pillow in the bed, in the house where Ho had slept, I knew I had received all the recompense I was likely to get for the nights in Vietnam I had spent in less comfortable circumstances many years ago. There was nothing more I could gain revisiting the war with my former enemies. Better to enjoy the evening and in the morning see to more promising pursuits, among which was helping to build a relationship with Vietnam that would serve both our peoples better than the old one had.”

The John McCain of the 1980s and 1990s was a true warrior for peace. Working together with another Vietnam vet, Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts, he helped disprove the saber-rattlers’ contention that Hanoi still kept thousands of American POWs in secret camps. He did this by bridging the gap between high-ranking Pentagon and Communist officials, people who had been shooting at each other just a few years before.

In 1994 the Senate passed a resolution, sponsored by Kerry and McCain, which called for an end to a U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam. “The vote will give the president the kind of political cover he needs to lift the embargo, and I expect that relatively soon,” McCain told the New York Times. “I think it’s a seminal event in U.S.-Vietnamese relations.”

In 1995, when President Bill Clinton normalized diplomatic relations with Vietnam, John McCain was in the room.

Where’s That Maverick Spirit Now?

Where is that John McCain today? He now talks about keeping the United States in Iraq for 100 years and seems to have no clue about the hardship and pain American bombing raids have on the Iraqi people. Where’s the maverick’s spirit of truth-telling when it comes to the lies the Bush administration told to get us into this war?

Today, McCain angrily calls out his Democratic rivals, arguing that they advocate an “arbitrary timetable” for withdrawal from Iraq “which recklessly ignores the profound human calamity and dire threats to our security that would ensue.” John McCain should know better, because the history of the Vietnam War (and his involvement in it) shows that while peace takes time, it starts with the withdrawal of the U.S. military.

When the U.S. left Vietnam in 1975, the situation was indeed tragic; more than 400,000 people were rounded up by the victorious Communists and thrown into “reeducation camps.” More than a million didn’t await that fate and fled by boat as refugees. The country’s economy remained a shambles and was isolated from the outside world for years. The same seems in store for Iraq when we leave.

But Vietnam’s setbacks were temporary and could not have been prevented by additional bombing runs or a “surge” of U.S. troops. Indeed, the main thing that triggered economic progress in Southeast Asia was the courage of people like John McCain – those who understood that the United States can achieve more through trade than it can through war and that tough diplomacy can achieve what a thousand bombing runs cannot.

Reprinted courtesy of Foreign Policy in Focus.