McCain's approach to war antithesis of Bill Clinton's

May 09, 1999|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- The late Murray Kempton, the elegantly epigrammatic columnist, noted that in America the absence of honest passion is a distinguishing feature of both professional wrestling and politics. Last week, Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, provided an exception to that rule.

Anger can be rhetoric's whetstone, and it gave a razor's edge to Mr. McCain's participation in the debate on the resolution to authorize the president to use "all necessary force" to achieve the proclaimed aims of the war against Yugoslavia. At first the Senate, busy celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week, said this debate on war, peace and the Constitution would be limited to four hours. This derisory limit was later extended to eight hours of Teacher Appreciation Week.

Mr. McCain wondered whether those congressmen who considered a debate untimely think congressmen should wait until the war ends to vote their consciences. That would mean allowing military personnel "to risk their lives for a cause that we will not risk our careers for."

Mr. McCain said he found himself in the "curious" but "not unexpected" position of defending the president's constitutional authority without the president's support. Although Mr. McCain thought his resolution constitutionally redundant, he offered it "in the forlorn hope that the president would take courage from it, and find the resolve to do his duty." Said Mr. McCain, "The president does not want the power he possesses by law because the risks inherent in its exercise have paralyzed him."

Unconstitutional act

A week earlier the House, with an incoherence produced by the timidity of careerists, voted against declaring war, against supporting the air war, against withdrawal of U.S. forces, against use of ground troops without congressional approval and against stopping what they will not support. Many House Republicans embraced what Mr. McCain considers the War Powers Act's unconstitutional presumptions about the limits on presidential war-making.

The act, which presumes to circumscribe presidents in waging war, should, Mr. McCain says, be repealed. "But that would require us to surrender a little of the ambiguity that we find so useful in this city." Instead, many House Republicans, claiming an authority Congress neither possesses constitutionally nor cares to exercise, embraced the act, which, Mr. McCain said acidly, "I doubt any of them believed in before last week."

Some Republicans, said Mr. McCain, are so blinded by contempt for Mr. Clinton -- which Mr. McCain clearly shares, but is not disoriented by -- that they resemble him: "The president, in his poll-driven approach to his every responsibility, fails to distinguish the office he holds from himself." And some Republicans so distrust him that they "feel obliged to damage the office in order to restrain the current occupant. Both sides have lost the ability to tell the office from the man."

Losing the war

Mr. McCain not only said that Mr. Clinton "is prepared to lose a war rather than do the hard work, the politically risky work" of fighting it, but also that Mr. Clinton has blood on his hands because of his pledge not to use ground forces:

"Instead of massing his forces to meet a possible ground attack, [Slobodan Milosevic] has deployed them in small units to reach more towns and villages in less time than if the president had remained silent on the question of ground troops. He has been able to displace, rape and murder more Kosovars more quickly than he could have if he feared he might face the mightiest army on earth. That is a fact of this war that is undeniable. And shame on the president for creating it."

Bombing strategy

As for the latest straw grasped by advocates of "war on the cheap" -- bombing pauses -- Mr. McCain recalled that he and almost 600 other prisoners of war in North Vietnam were freed only after bombing pauses were replaced by sustained strategic bombing:

"My father" -- Adm. John McCain, commander in chief of the Pacific -- "gave the order to send B-52s -- planes that did not have the precision guided munitions that so impress us all today -- he gave the order to send them to bomb the city where his oldest son was held a prisoner of war.

"That is a pretty hard thing for a father to do, but he did it because it was his duty, and he would not shrink from it. He did it because he didn't believe America should lose a war, or settle for a draw. . . . He knew that leaders were expected to make hard choices in war. Would that the president had half that regard for the responsibilities of his office."

For some voters, the 2000 presidential election poses a single question: Which candidate is least like Mr. Clinton? Listening to Mr. McCain last week, some of those voters may have left the "undecided" category.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 5/09/99

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