- The Washington Times - Friday, February 29, 2008


The new VoteVets.org ad attacking Sen. John McCain is the first version of the guns vs. butter argument that arises in every presidential election. The VoteVets ad looks more like an ad for diaper softener than hard-core anti-war campaign ad, but that is precisely what it is.

Capt. Rose Forrest, the young mother cradling a baby in her arms is a veteran of Iraq. In the ad, Capt. Forrest attributes to Mr. McCain the statement that he would be comfortable if we had to stay in Iraq for 1,000 years. She asks, what about guaranteeing her son 1,000 years of health care or 1,000 years of keeping America safe? The kicker is her final question: Can we afford that, Senator McCain, or have you already promised to spend trillions in Baghdad?

The ad is a minor masterpiece. The mother and baby combine to create the ultimately warm American family scene and the script presents a clear but false choice to the voter. The choice between health care and national security on the one hand and continuing our commitment to Iraq is a strawman. Even if we withdraw immediately from Iraq, leaving it to the mercies of terrorists and its rapacious neighbors, terrorists and the nations that sponsor them won’t ensure that America remains undisturbed.

But unless Mr. McCain responds properly on both the falsity of the argument and on the way forward in the war, his commitment to President Bush’s policy in Iraq may yet sink his campaign.

The guns vs. butter, or, in this case, Baghdad versus homeland security and health care is a framing of the issue that the left gets away with because Mr. Bush has never defined the war, the enemy or what victory would be comprised of. Under the president’s formulation, success is the creation of an Iraq that can govern, sustain and defend itself and be an ally in the war on terror. Looking into this position, and the rest of the terrorist world, is like looking through a glass, and darkly. Nothing other than more war can be seen.

Mr. McCain has married himself to the troop surge, which Gen. David Petraeus is leading magnificently. But what happens afterward? The surge will, necessarily, be drawn down this year. Whatever Gen. Petraeus has accomplished, it can like everything else in the Middle East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, disappear in weeks, or months or but a few years. Mr. McCain, to defeat the guns vs. butter ads, has to do what Mr. Bush has not done.

Mr. McCain should craft a speech about Iraq and the proper post-surge policy to win the war. First, he should say that the success of the Iraq democracy is not our principal goal in this war. He should say that the enemy isn’t only al Qaeda, or the Saudi fighters who still slip into Iraq regularly. And though Iran is the most dangerous terrorist nation, it is not alone the enemy.

The enemy is a two-headed monster. First, it is an ideology: radical Islam. Islam is a religion, radical Islam is an ideology. And like Communism and Nazism before it, it must be defeated. The second head is comprised of the nations that sponsor terrorism.

This brings the inevitable conclusion: Regardless of what happens to Iraq’s nascent democracy, a war must be fought to defeat the terrorist ideology, and to compel the nations that sponsor terrorism against us and our allies to cease doing so. Unless and until that occurs, the war goes on.

Mr. McCain can and must clarify what this war is about. In one speech he can untangle the mess that Mr. Bush’s neo-Wilsonian policy has created. And in so doing, Mr. McCain can defeat the guns vs. health-care-and-safety-at-home argument.

If Americans are to be safe, the existential threat of radical Islamic terrorism and the nations that sponsor it must be defeated. By making that case, Mr. McCain can also distance himself from the president’s policy, which would help with disgruntled Republicans. He should say that we will not stay in Iraq forever, but we will fight there and wherever else we must to defeat the enemy.

To win the war will require Americans to sacrifice more blood and treasure. But this is not only for the benefit of the Iraqis, the Afghans or others who choose at great risk to themselves to ally with us in the war against the terrorists and their ideology.

Since the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, Mr. Bush has left us confused about what the war really is and what it will take to win it. Mr. McCain can undo the confusion, make clear what our goals must be and draw the American people to him. The fight is to protect America and Americans will not hide from that.

The guns vs. butter argument succeeded in the early 1970s because the guns were for Vietnam. When we abandoned Vietnam, its people and millions of others suffered but Americans at home, especially in Congress were content to watch, South Vietnam. But the guns vs. butter argument fails in a war that threatens America’s existence.

Americans want to be safe from terrorism. Mr. Bush has charted a course to that goal, leaving Mr. McCain at the disadvantage against VoteVets.org and the rest. But if Mr. McCain can bring himself to do what Mr. Bush has not — to lead as a war president must — he will win the guns vs. butter argument, and the election as well.

Jed Babbin, who served as deputy undersecretary of defense under George H.W. Bush, is editor of Human Events and Human Events.com.

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