At first blush, Karen Kwiatkowski might read like a puzzle: she spent over twenty years in the military, but today is one of its biggest critics. She is running as a Republican, but can’t stand what the party has become.
She wants to represent her conservative Virginia district in the House of Representatives, but she loathes to politic. Or raise money. Or glad-hand. But Kwiatkowski wholly believes 11-term Congressman Bob Goodlatte, R-VA., should go, and is willing to try to beat him and lose if it means rendering him ultimately vulnerable for the next election cycle.
“We have a lot of things working for us. If Bob manages to eke out a win, his mandate will still be gone,” insists Kwiatkowski, in an interview with Antiwar.com last week, just days now before the June 12th primary that will decide who will represent the GOP in the 6th District congressional race in November.
Since this northwest Virginia district is overwhelmingly Republican — some say as much as 70 percent — whomever wins next Tuesday’s primary is more than likely to take home the prize, as Goodlatte has done, often completely unopposed (four times) since his election in 1992. This time, Democrat Andy Schmookler will face the Republican nominee — should it be Goodlatte or Kwiatkowski — in the fall.
In 2010, Goodlatte faced an independent and a Libertarian (but no Democrat) on the ballot and won with 76 percent of the vote.
All this is to say that Kwiatkowski, 51, is an anti-establishment Republican who is against the war and a very big Ron Paul supporter in a district that has sent a GOP insider back to Washington again and again, and is waging a primary challenge against what experts say is a nominally safe incumbent seat.
But she and others insist that in places like Northwest Virginia, the Tea Party strain has become quite emboldened by the libertarian spirit of Ron Paul — so much that very recently, Paul’s supporters managed to win all six 6th District delegates (regular and alternates) going to the National Republican Convention in August, and took over several local party chairmanships. They reportedly flooded the May 6th District Republican convention in Lexington, giving Kwiatkowski a standing ovation while Goodlatte watched.
“I do think, whether or not she wins this time, the district is definitely ripe for the libertarian idea: antiwar, less government, government-stay-out-of-our-lives, fiscally conservative, more freedom — that is what I’ve seen, working out here for Ron Paul,” said Braedon Wilkerson, the 6th District coordinator for the Ron Paul campaign.
As for Kwiatkowski, “(she) won’t be easy for the establishment to push around,” added Dave Nalle, national chairman of the Liberty Caucus, which endorsed the former Air Force officer in May.
At issue in the 6th District, however, is how Kwiatkowski has been able to bring her beef with the military industrial complex (MIC) to the table without offending this traditional conservative constituency, which has a long and storied military tradition, and has overwhelmingly supported pro-war Republicans like George W. Bush (with 63 percent of the vote in 2004) and John McCain (with 57 percent in 2008).
“When I first started (campaigning) — we’ve done this now for 14 months off and on — I would emphasize the military stuff, they love military service. They adore it. So we were more cautious. Our angle was waste, fraud and abuse and stupidity in the military. They were open to that,” Kwiatkowski said.
“And we’re finding it’s nation-building that they hate. They hate nation-building.”
But the antagonism has gone beyond abhorring nation building merely on principle, especially as the war in Afghanistan wears on, she said. Sons and daughters and nieces and nephews are all returning from overseas and complaining that despite all the rhetoric — the soaring national hymns about fighting for freedom and taking the fight to Johnny Jihad where he lives — the war is a waste (in fact, most of returning veterans say the same). And on top of it all, they are coming home with lifelong injuries that the military and Veterans Administration (VA) system is not prepared to handle all at once.
“That strikes a nerve with our people,” said Kwiatkowski, who was raised in Appalachia, North Carolina, another state with an entrenched military base. “We’ve found it quite easy to speak the truth, even with what you consider traditional military supporters.”
Karen Kwiatkowski certainly has no difficulty speaking what she would consider plain truth. With her military credentials, along with two books, two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in world politics under her belt, her speeches are at once informed and passionate. That Kwiatkowski delivers them with such a youthful lilt, with the slightest hint of the mountains where she comes from, and the valley she lives in now, is her greatest charm: an open-faced country woman (a cattle farmer, too, by the way), who means business. No fooling around.
Of course, you don’t spend twenty years in the belly of the beast if you hadn’t bought into the program at some point. Kwiatkowski has often said she was always a Goldwater Republican who believed in strong defense and was proud to serve her country. Her service eventually brought her to Washington, first as a speechwriter for the National Security Agency (NSA), and then finally to the Pentagon where she was analyst for the sub-Saharan Africa section, when a hijacked plane flew into the building on 9/11.
She was shifted to the Pentagon’s Near East and South Asia directorate (NESA) after the attacks. There, as she described in a trio of riveting stories for The American Conservative in December 2003, she witnessed first-hand how neoconservative elements had taken over the levers and were paving the road to war in Iraq.
In fact, as she experienced a number of epiphanies about the new political reality in the Pentagon—not only the different faces and the roles they played in “special plans” for regime change in Iraq, but in the hush-hush warnings from office mates, the “talking points” and fresh demands on how the analysts could talk about things like the Middle East (decidedly anti-Arab), she said he “had the sense of a single click, the sound tectonic plates might make as they shift deep under the earth and lock into a new resting position—or when the trigger is pulled in a game of Russian roulette.” She never went back.
In one of the most compelling passages — of which there are too many to share here — Kwiatkowski encapsulates what we now know with the benefit of hindsight and subsequent memoirs from other officials once close to the action, about how it all happened:
I had observed that many of the neoconservatives in the Pentagon not only had limited military experience, if any at all, but they also advocated theories of war that struck me as rejections of classical liberalism, natural law, and constitutional strictures. More than that, the pressure of the intelligence community to conform, the rejection of it when it failed to produce intelligence suitable for supporting the “Iraq is an imminent threat to the United States” agenda, and the amazing things I was hearing in both Bush and (vice president Dick) Cheney speeches told me that not only do neoconservatives hold a theory based on ideas not embraced by the American mainstream, but they also have a collective contempt for fact.
By August, I was morally and intellectually frustrated by my powerlessness against what increasingly appeared to be a philosophical hijacking of the Pentagon. Indeed, I had sworn an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, but perhaps we were never really expected to take it all that seriously …
By February 2003, Kwiatkowski had taken early retirement, without incident. She continued to write more ardently. But remember, aside from Antiwar.com and TAC, there wasn’t much room for what she called “real conservatives” to question the war policy under George W. Bush’s reign in 2003.
Plus, her critique of neoconservatives and U.S.-Israel policy led to charges of anti-Semitism — a mark of pariah in the merciless foreign policy fishbowl — that she still hasn’t been able to shake and continue to this day, Kwiatkowski says, though she adamantly denies any such tendencies.
Still, she wrote for both publications, and for Lew Rockwell’s website. She even turned up in liberal corners like Salon.com. Like many of us, she struggled against the tide and with full knowledge that she was not “of the body.” The American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Rubin, who worked in the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans at the same time Kwiatkowski was there, tried to tie her to the LaRouche Organization in 2004, which again, she denied as yet another smear.
Today things are marginally different, but in a positive way. Obama has certainly carried on the Bush war policy. Domestically, however, Americans are tired of the war. The rise of the revolutionary impulse — whether it be the Tea Party, the Paulites or Occupy Wall Street — has made it alright again to question Washington, to declare things like “I love my country but fear my government,” and not be laced up for the booby hatch by the politically correct public court of opinion.
For this, Kwiatkowski has chosen a good time to challenge Goodlatte, who has been in office for about as long as she was in the military. She doesn’t dwell too much on the past, rather she is appealing to voters of the 6th District in ways more relevant really, to 2012: Washington’s mishandling of the economy and the federal deficit, for one. Protecting civil liberties is another. She isn’t afraid to talk about “crony capitalism” in relationship to big bailouts and cozy deals with big agriculture and the pharmaceutical industry.
“We’re still about free market and teeny tiny government, but we have to look out for liberty and personal property, too, and we’re talking about it,” she told us. “We’re trying to get people to push back against the government at every level — I think people are ready for it. It’s not just about us, it’s about the nature of change.”
For his part, Goodlatte does not publicly talk about his primary opponent. He hasn’t accepted Kwiatkowski’s invitations to debate, either. She routinely calls him out as the sponsor of the failed SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) bill, which would have allowed the government to take down any website deemed responsible for hawking, linking or hosting material deemed in violation of copyright laws. She lumps him in with every establishment Republican who has spent the last several Congresses jacking up budgets no matter who is in the White House.
A call to Goodlatte’s campaign was not returned as of press time.
Nonetheless, Kwiatkowski says she is no Pollyanna — she knows the odds are stacked against her, that it all comes down to turnout (though it could be interesting — Virginia has open primaries, meaning Democrats and independents are allowed to vote, too, on June 12). So far, Goodlatte has raised $1.18 million and spent $864,592. Kwiatkowski raised $75,481 as of March, though most recently she said she had collected some $90,000 in contributions (with no help from national political action committees, or big endorsements from incumbent pols).
She also assumes Goodlatte will deploy a direct mail attack just before voting day, raising again, the specter of anti-Semitism and of Karen being a 9/11 “truther” which she flatly denies (no doubt the opposition will use for fodder a statement she reportedly signed along with “U.S. Military Officers for 9/11 Truth in 2010).
“Sure if you mean I seek the truth, then yes, but not in the way they are accusing me of,” she told us, meaning, “the government failed to protect us that day — we in the military failed to protect us — and the Commission report was gappy and incomplete, not well done.”
On the up side, Wilkerson says there are a lot of new, young transplants from the nearby college communities who are becoming politically active, especially in Ron Paul’s campaign. Kwiatkowski is a natural fit for that wave. “That’s one dynamic (she) has on her side — that the young people don’t buy the party line.”
Kwiatkowski says, win or lose, she will be happy to get back to the farm, literally, when the campaign is over.
“We’re doing a lot of things differently, I think we’re on the right track,” she said. “I don’t want to have too high of expectations, but we’re getting a lot of Republican ‘attaboys.’”
“Maybe this year,” she added, “is the year we prove everyone wrong.”
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