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How to Tell if a Candidate Backs War or Peace
I just had a chat with a Democratic candidate who has just about wrapped up his party's nomination for Congress here in Virginia's Fifth Congressional District. John Douglass is a retired Brigadier General, a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and a former deputy U.S. military representative to the NATO Military Committee in Brussels, Belgium.
Obviously a candidate for war, right? That's not what people were telling me, and not what Douglass himself says. He tells me he's for peace and for moving from an offensive military to one that is truly defensive. Rather than wars in the Middle East, he says, he'd like to search every container that enters our country and control every passage across out country's borders. Such policies, he says, don't threaten anyone or produce terrorism.
But, here's the catch. In recent years in this district, Congressman Virgil Goode (a Democrat turned Republican), Congressman Tom Perriello (Democrat), and the current incumbent Robert Hurt (Republican) have voted for every "emergency" supplemental war spending bill they could get their hands on, along with every "defense" appropriations act. Perriello said he was for peace and justice and the rule of law, but would never commit to anything, and always voted for war. So, I asked Douglass if he would commit to anything.
To avoid asking about hypothetical situations, I asked Douglass if he would have voted against any of the war funding bills that his predecessors voted for. "Maybe I would and maybe I wouldn't," he replied. "It's hard for me to put myself in their position from not being there."
Think about what that means. In this government of the people, the people have no ability to determine whether a bill deserved support or not, even years after the fact, much less when it counts, because the people are not all members of Congress. Those of us who lobby a Congress member to vote a particular way on something have no business doing that because we are not in their position. Their job is to represent us, then, without asking us what we want, since we are not qualified to say.
Douglass said that, "Once the troops are committed, it would be hard for me not to support them." He said he would vote to fund even wars that he had opposed launching. I asked if it would make a difference to him if the majority of the troops told pollsters they wanted the war ended. I asked if it would make a difference to him if the top cause of death for the troops was suicide. Summing up his answer: Nope, he replied, and the question is too theoretical.
So, I asked about a particular bill now in Congress, Rep. Barbara Lee's bill which limits funding in Afghanistan to withdrawal. Would he sign onto it? Again, no commitment. "Probably," he said. This wasn't a theoretical bill, but it was a bill that he said he hadn't read. Still, he would not commit to the principle or to the bill as I described it.
I asked Douglass if he would have voted, as Rep. Hurt did, against this year's National Defense Authorization Act in opposition to the power of indefinite detention. Again the answer was: "Probably." Probably he would oppose authorizing presidents to lock us up forever without a trial. Probably.
Douglass told me that military spending is too high. I asked him repeatedly for a rough indication of how much too high it is, and I never got even a hint at an answer. Repeatedly Douglass suggested that the problem in Washington is partisan division and polarization, even though both parties overwhelmingly back military spending and wars. Repeatedly Douglass changed the subject to reducing nuclear weapons, but he drew the line at maintaining what he called "a credible deterrent against crazy people like North Koreans or God forbid the Iranians get nuclear weapons." He also promoted "modernizing" U.S. nuclear weapons.
I asked about the roles of Congress and the President in decision making. I asked if an agreement for 10 more years in Afghanistan needed Senate ratification to be Constitutional. Douglass replied that his "first instinct" would be to say yes. I asked if presidents could start wars without Congress, and Douglass replied that some wars are not technically wars, but he could still commit to a definite maybe. Elaborating, Douglass said that while he'd like to allow Congress to make such decisions, he would be opposed to giving that power to the current Congress because it's too polarized. This creates a puzzle, as far as I can see, because if Douglass tries to de-polarize Congress by agreeing with the greatest number of his colleagues, that greatest number clearly favors leaving all war decisions to presidents. If instead Douglass were to take a stand for (and not just swear an oath to) the Constitution, he would become part of the horrifying polarization. I pointed out that neither the Constitution nor the War Powers Act makes exceptions for polarized Congresses, and Douglass said, "There are also practicalities."
Given what I took to be his loose reading of the law, I thought I should ask Douglass about the current practice of murdering people around the world with drones. He said he approved of it, including for U.S. citizens, but only for men, never for women or children. I asked about the killing of Anwar al Awlaki, and Douglass said he did not know that case. Nor did he seem to be aware that the United States had also, in a separate strike weeks later, killed Awlaki's 16-year-old son. In theory, Douglass opposes that act, although he apparently doesn't know of it.
I continued to try to figure out what Douglass would do as a member of Congress if he opposed a war or military spending. Would he vote against funding? Would he vote for defunding? No telling. Would he back a process of economic conversion from weapons industries to civilian industries? Not at all clear. So, how do I know whether to vote for you, I asked.
Vote for my military record, said Douglass.
Can't do it, said I.
In desperation, I asked if he would take a stand against a war on Iran. Douglass replied that Iran might attack U.S. ships. Why not move the U.S. ships away from Iran, I asked.
Responding to that outrageous question, Douglass became more agitated than at any other time in the interview:
"We have a right to send our Navy anywhere we want in the world," he exclaimed. "And the Gulf [sic] of Hormuz is the lifeline of oil for the Western civilization! So why would you want to just walk away from the Gulf [sic] of Hormuz because of those guys?"
Here's audio of the full conversation with John Douglass: