Colin Powell’s Lesson For Republicans

This column ran in The National Post on August 11, 2016.

Sixteen days before the 2008 presidential election, George W. Bush’s former secretary of state, Gen. Colin Powell (Ret.), appeared on NBC’s Meet The Press to reveal his much-coveted endorsement.

Powell felt Barack Obama and John McCain were equally fit for office, both distinguished, patriotic and “dedicated to the welfare” of America.

 Obama, however, offered an “inclusive, broader reach into the needs and aspirations” of Americans, whereas McCain, Powell’s “beloved colleague and friend of 25 years,” took the increasingly narrow approach championed by his running mate, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

“I’m troubled,” Powell explained, “by what members of the party say, and it’s permitted to be said. ‘Well, you know Obama is a Muslim’ … He is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian.”

“But,” he continued, “the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing he or she could be president? The answer is no.”

Had more Republicans followed Powell’s lead in pushing back against the explicit pandering to extremes, they may not be retreading this ground, eight years on, at the behest of their presidential nominee, Donald Trump.

In 2004, U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan sacrificed himself for his men while in Iraq, and was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. At the Democratic National Convention, the Muslim-American soldier’s father, Khizr Khan, delivered a powerful antidote to the rhetoric Trump has used to fuel his political rise.

“Donald Trump consistently smears the character of Muslims, disrespects other minorities,” Khan said, before asking of Trump: ”Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of the brave patriots who died defending America — you will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”

Indeed, Trump dodged military service through five draft deferrals, later equating his dating during the Vietnam era to fighting the war. “I feel like a great and very brave soldier,” Trump told Howard Stern in 1997, for “surviving” free of STDs. He declared it a “personal Vietnam.”

Trump similarly dismissed Khan’s challenge, compared his supposed business acumen to Humayun’s sacrifice, then proceeded to impugn the character of the Gold Star parents by insinuating their true sympathies lie with terrorists.

The abhorrent treatment of the Khans drew scathing condemnation from decorated military personnel and veterans’ organizations, and earned direct denunciation from fellow Republicans. “In recent days, Donald Trump disparaged a fallen soldier’s parents,” wrote McCain, whose own heroism was once trivialized by Trump. “He suggested the likes of their son should not be allowed in the United States — to say nothing of entering its service. I cannot emphasize enough how deeply I disagree with Mr. Trump’s statement. I hope Americans understand that the remarks do not represent the views of our Republican Party, its officers, or candidates.”

In 2008, Powell backed Obama over McCain, and in doing so, described a pivotal moment in solidifying his decision: “It was a photo essay about troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he explained, where one poignant image, “a mother in Arlington Cemetery … her head on the headstone of her son’s grave” caught his attention. “As the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. It gave his awards — Purple Heart, Bronze Star; showed he died in Iraq. Then, at the top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have the Star of David, it had a crescent and a star of the Islamic faith.”

“His name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan … He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he (could) serve his country, and he gave his life.”

That was Powell’s America, one threatened by the bottom half of McCain’s ticket, the Palin-wing of the party, which metastasized into the poisonous movement that propelled Trump to the top of the 2016 ticket.

Though it’s a different Khan resting in Arlington whose story has moved conservatives, it’s again an extraordinary Muslim-American providing the catalyst that has principled Republicans now distancing themselves from what their party has become.

Far from defending the debasement of the Khans, when Trump’s campaign issued an “urgent” plea for vocal support, congressional allies instead leaked the memo to the press. Trump’s indifference to the constitution factored into an open letter signed by 50 senior Republican national security officials, one detailing Trump as a threat to “national security and well-being.”

Former president Bill Clinton once said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” The vigorous, bipartisan defence of the Khans offered a glimpse of what remains right with America, and that precise “greatness” threatens to fell the very demagogue claiming it doesn’t exist.

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It’s Time For An Open, Honest Debate On Afghanistan

As the date for withdrawal from Afghanistan by the Canadian forces approaches, pressure to remain in the battle mounts amid two high profile requests for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to reconsider his decision to abandon the Afghan mission.

On March 29, in an interview with CTV’s Tom Clark, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised the contribution of the Canadian forces, explaining why the Americans feel it’s important that we continue our NATO commitment:

We are very grateful for the Canadian Forces, the Canadian government, and most of all the Canadian people, with the support and solidarity they’ve shown with us in this mission in Afghanistan. We would obviously like to see some form of support to continue, because the Canadian forces have a great reputation. They work really well with the American troops and the other members of the coalition…There’s a really close working relationship, and I think our militaries have become even closer because of this deployment…We believe, in the United States, with the new strategy that president Obama has set forth, we’re making progress. It’s been a long slog, trying to learn how to take on these insurgents, to have great militaries like our Countries do, but to have to go back to basically guerilla warfare, asymmetric warfare to take on the enemy…we’ve made a lot of progress and we would very much look forward to having Canada involved in any way you think appropriate.

…The (Canadian) military could switch more into a training role, instead of a combat role; A logistics support role instead of the front line combat. Certainly the non military functions of working to encourage development, better governance, the rule of law, all the pieces of the strategy that have to be married with the military and Canada has a particular commitment to, and experience with, that kind of development work that would be very useful.

Just 24 hours after Clinton’s remarks, U.K foreign secretary David Millband appeared on CTV, expressing the British position regarding Canada’s proposed troop withdrawal:

Of course we want you to be there. We went in together and the best thing would be if we stay together, and only go out together. I’ve seen for myself the remarkable bravery of Canadian officers and troops in the south of Afghanistan. I’ve talked to your soldiers and your officers, they made a remarkable contribution, they’re making a real difference in that country, and they’re making a real difference to the coalition effort…From my point of view it’s absolutely clear; We’re a 43 nation coalition, and we’re strongly united.
Canadians are very, very good at diplomacy, at aid, at development, and also at the military effect, and so wherever in that spectrum you can make a contribution, it will be welcome. But your military contribution, both in a combat role and in a training role, mentoring role, is very very important indeed.

…we’ve all got a job to do, there’s a new commander, General McChrystal, is doing an outstanding job in developing a strategy that protects the Afghan population, he’s giving the space for the civilian effort to take effect.

Although Harper is holding firm to the 2011 pullout date, at least one senior Conservative caucus member has come forward in support of extending the mission. Conservative Senator Hugh Segal feels “we have lost too many people and we have made too much of a contribution and we’ve made some considerable progress that we do not, to quote the Prime Minister, ‘cut and run’.”

It does seem a little more than ironic that Harper, who in 2003 gave an impassioned speech* to the House of Commons imploring Canada to join George W. Bush in the United States’ invasion of Iraq, has completely lost interest in Afghanistan. His lack of commitment happens to come as the United States finally has a president who possesses both a strategy, and firm commitment to, the Afghan war.

The desire for Canada to continue its presence in Afghanistan is not limited to our NATO coalition partners; Family members of soldiers killed in Afghanistan are also questioning Harper’s arbitrary withdrawal date, fearing that not seeing the mission through to the end will mean their loved ones died in vain.

Myles Kennedy, the father of Pte. Kevin Kennedy who was killed in a roadside blast on Easter Sunday in 2007, believes “we came in to do a job, and our job will not be complete if (Harper) pulls out the whole group.” Kennedy’s faith in the success of the mission is strong, a CTV report noting “(Kennedy) was amazed at the scale of NATO’s buildup for this spring’s planned offensive in Kandahar, and for the first time since his son’s death…he’s optimistic that war can be turned around.”

Canadians need an open, honest debate about the possibility of remaining in Afghanistan post 2011, and Parliament should revisit the 2008 motion for troop withdrawal to discuss the merits and drawbacks of either extending, or ending, the Afghan mission. It’s clear that the expertise, tenacity, and effectiveness of the Canadian Forces has had a positive impact on our NATO allies; Their request for our continuance in Afghanistan demonstrates their belief in Canada’s importance to the ultimate success of the mission.

Canadian men and women who have volunteered for combat on behalf of an entire nation deserve to have their future roles in Afghanistan mapped out through careful consultation between Parliament and leaders of the Canadian military; Not by a Prime Minister who’d sooner ignore the entire situation than definitively answer the urgent requests being levelled at his government.

*It’s unclear as to whether Harper plagiarized the speech given by Australian Prime Minister John Howard two days prior to his own address to Parliament, or whether both men had received a pre-written argument straight from the Bush administration.

Cross-posted at rabble.ca

UPDATE April 8: Conservative Senator Hugh Segal in the Toronto Star – There’s so much more to be done in Afghanistan