McCain Hauls America From the Abyss

Remember when public figures were impressive? It’s a dim, distant memory, but not a nostalgic hallucination: once there were good men, and we’d occasionally elect them.

This desiccated memory crawled back to mind a few days ago, when John McCain rammed an anti-torture bill through the Senate. Now, there are those who would dismiss McCain as a foaming imperialist: James Wolcott in particular, whose reliable judgment seems to lose its compass whenever a pol or pundit refuses to insist upon an immediate retreat from Iraq.  Wolcott has denounced McCain as a “choleric hawk,” borrowing his words from his good friend Camille Paglia. And Paglia derives her opinion from McCain’s face, believe it or not: 

The TV camera does not lie: Just as it showed from the get-go that ex-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was a nervous, shifty, sweaty, petulant mental adolescent, so has it exposed McCain over time as a seething nest of proto-fascist impulses. Despite his recent flurry of radiant, P.R.-coached grins, McCain has the weirdly wary and over-intense eyes of Howard Hughes and the clenched, humorless jaw line of Nurse Diesel.

Well, the television does lie. It’s what it does best. The television has, for instance, on occasion portrayed Camille Paglia as sane.

Yes, McCain’s a warrior. But that’s not quite the same as a bloodthirsty chickenhawk. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite. Yes, he supports the current war in Iraq, but I’d be interested in knowing what that really means. He’s also on record as supporting George Bush, a man he patently despises. My sense is that McCain is triangulating (even the greatest men do that, when thrown into the cesspool of Realpolitik): he needs to stand elbow to shoulder with Bush, in order to have any chance at the Republican candidacy in 2008; and I suspect he has very complex reasons for supporting the war.

Those reasons? Well, let’s face it: have you heard anycoherent plans for dealing with the Iraqi toxic waste dump? Those who loathe the war (and I’m one) are inclined to say “cut and run” — but that is probably not the most intelligent strategy. The current poisonous mess could grow even more lethal: imagine a former Iraq, split into a democratic Kurdistan (nice, but the ensuing war with Turkey could prove ugly); a rogue Sunni state, constituting little more than a base and spawning ground for terrorists; and a Shiite theocracy, now tight with Iranians fellow travelers, and sitting on at least 112.5 billion barrels of oil — the second largest pool in the world, after Saudi Arabia.

Not a pleasant thought. And no: I haven’t the faintest idea what to do about it, except that “cut and run” may not be the most realistic option. If anyone in America does know what to do in this situation, it will be someone like McCain or Kerry: a proven military leader, with a long history of successful diplomacy. McCain, in particular, is as much a skilled and principled diplomat as anything else — this is a man who went out of his way to forge peaceful relations with a nation that imprisoned him for years, and tortured him for much of it. If McCain says that we need more troops on the ground, for the moment: well, I’m inclined to value his opinion. That does not make him a “choleric hawk” — it simply makes him a guy who recognizes the importance of cleaning up Bush’s mess properly.

Which brings us back to the current bill. Christ, finally someone has had the courage to stand up to this administration’s shameful embrace of utter barbarism. And McCain has done it in language that will stand up well in the history books: “The enemy we fight has no respect for human life or human rights. They don’t deserve our sympathy. But this isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are.” 

Absolutely right: it’s about the soul of America. And I mean that in the full religious sense, which someone like Bush ought to comprehend (if his religion were about something more than sentimental self-esteem) — it’s about the Good, and it’s about damnation.

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