Doing the Unpopular Thing

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"We, who are willing to support this new strategy, and give General Petraeus the time and support he needs, have chosen a hard road. But it is the right road. It is necessary and just. Democrats, who deny our soldiers the means to prevent an American defeat, have chosen another road. It may appear to be the easier course of action, but it is a much more reckless one, and it does them no credit even if it gives them an advantage in the next election. This is an historic choice, with ramifications for Americans not even born yet. Let's put aside for a moment the small politics of the day. The judgment of history should be the approval we seek, not the temporary favor of the latest public opinion poll." Sen. John McCain (R-Az.), speaking at the Virginia Military Institute, April 11, 2007

"We're going to pick up Senate seats as a result of this war. Senator Schumer has shown me numbers that are compelling and astounding." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), speaking to reporters, April 12, 2007

"This war is lost." Reid, April 19, 2007

Usually, politics is a murky business — gray upon gray, one set of mixed motives jostling with another. But sometimes there is a time for choosing — between courage and cynicism, between honor and disgrace.

John McCain's speech to the cadets of the Virginia Military Institute is the best single analysis by any political figure of where we stand in the war in Iraq. It is a serious and sober attempt to persuade the American people that the war is winnable, that we should give Gen. Petraeus a chance to win it, and that accepting defeat would be both ignoble and disastrous to American interests. With this morally and intellectually impressive speech, John McCain took leadership of the fight for victory in Iraq.

McCain was hard on the opponents of the war here at home. He didn't just describe troop withdrawal proposals as unwise. He derided "the fanciful and self-interested debates about Iraq that substitute for statesmanship in Washington." And he suggested that the Democrats had decided "to take advantage of the public's frustration, accept defeat," and hope that "the politics of defeat" would benefit them.

McCain continued: "In Washington, where political calculation seems to trump all other considerations, Democrats in Congress and their leading candidates for President, heedless of the terrible consequences of our failure, unanimously confirmed our new commander, and then insisted he be prevented from taking the action he believes necessary to safeguard our country's interests.... I watched with regret as the House of Representatives voted to deny our troops the support necessary to carry out their new mission. Democratic leaders smiled and cheered as the last votes were counted. What were they celebrating? Defeat? Surrender? In Iraq, only our enemies were cheering."

Tough words — especially because, here in America, much of the mainstream media was also cheering. McCain, a onetime media favorite when he last ran for President, was effectively forswearing the possibility of regaining their favor.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media paid little attention to Harry Reid's comments quoted above. Republican criticisms of them were treated as the normal tit-for-tat of partisan politics. Reid's cynicism wasn't thought noteworthy, and his defeatism wasn't thought extraordinary. Apparently, cynicism in the service of the defeat of Republicans is no vice. Undercutting the efforts of American troops you have voted to send to fight in a war is a virtue.

Earlier this month, the "surge" was beginning visibly to work. Al-Qaeda fought back, with massive slaughter of civilians, whose purpose was in part to undercut support for the war against al-Qaeda on the home front. Harry Reid followed script.

Now we are at a moment of truth. There is McCain's way, a way of difficulty and honor. There is Reid's way, a way of political expediency and dishonor. McCain may lose the political battle at home, and the U.S. may ultimately lose in Iraq. But some of us will always be proud, at this moment of choice, to have stood with McCain, and our soldiers, and our country.