Obit Desk

A Real American Hero

Remembering George McGovern.

George McGovern's father was a miner turned Methodist minister, and the future senator grew up poor. No matter, perhaps: There are children of ministers who grew up poor in once-populist strongholds during the Great Depression and then devote their lives to forgetting where they came from or priding themselves on having pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and left the losers trailing in the dust.

There were no doubt other 19-year-olds beside George McGovern, who, on hearing the news from Pearl Harbor, rushed off to enlist in the Army Air Forces.  There may even have been one or two others who decided, in the course of 35 bombing missions over wartime Europe, that the appropriate sequel to the fear and trembling of wartime was to finish his college degree (on the same G. I. Bill that many today consider a contemptible element of the nanny state) and then become a professor of history. Along the way, influenced by the Social Gospel, he went to divinity school. About his war service, he rarely spoke -- even during the presidential campaign when he was savaged for insufficient respect for the divinity of an American war cause. When he returned to school -- Northwestern -- to write a dissertation on the Colorado coal strikes, his adviser was Arthur Link, the biographer of Woodrow Wilson. Had McGovern won election in 1972, he would have been the first president since Wilson with a Ph.D.

He was a liberal, not a radical, and he trusted in liberal leadership. In August 1964, against his better judgment, at the behest of the usually astute Sen. J. William Fulbright, he voted for President Lyndon Johnson's Tonkin Gulf resolution, and quickly regretted it. What made him an old-fashioned sort of liberal was his moral directness. When, in the Senate of 1970, he rose in favor of the McGovern-Hatfield bill, which would have cut off American military operations in Vietnam and withdrawn all the troops, he said this:

"Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land -- young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes.

"There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us."

These were not the words of a communist but a moralist.

The bill went down, 55-39.  Many more thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians went down before President Richard Nixon had the grace to resign, and even then, the bill of impeachment failed to cite Nixon's secret (from Americans, that is) bombing campaigns in Cambodia (Rep. John Conyers of the Judiciary Committee moved an additional article of impeachment, charging truthfully that Nixon submitted to Congress "false and misleading statements concerning the existence, scope and nature of American bombing operations in Cambodia.") Many thousands of tons more napalm and Agent Orange (among other incendiary and poisonous weapons) rained down on Southeast Asia because, as McGovern would put it in his ringing acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention of 1972, "during four administrations of both parties, a terrible war has been chartered behind closed doors."

That notorious speech became, to the neoconservatives, emblematic of American gutlessness. The neocons, then and since, did not pay so much attention to this line: "In 1968 many Americans thought they were voting to bring our sons home from Vietnam in peace, and since then 20,000 of our sons have come home in coffins." Or this, in a reference to Nixon's campaign of lies in 1968: "I have no secret plan for peace. I have a public plan. And as one whose heart has ached for the past 10 years over the agony of Vietnam, I will halt a senseless bombing of Indochina on Inaugural Day." Or this: "There will be no more Asian children running ablaze from bombed-out schools. There will be no more talk of bombing the dikes or the cities of the north."

Or this:

"America must never become a second-rate nation. As one who has tasted the bitter fruits of our weakness before Pearl Harbor in 1941, I give you my pledge that if I become the president of the United States, America will keep its defenses alert and fully sufficient to meet any danger."

No, what freaked them out was three words: "Come home, America." The refrain was embedded like this:

"From secrecy and deception in high places; come home, America.

"From military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation; come home, America.

"From the entrenchment of special privileges in tax favoritism; from the waste of idle lands to the joy of useful labor; from the prejudice based on race and sex; from the loneliness of the aging poor and the despair of the neglected sick -- come home, America.

"Come home to the affirmation that we have a dream."

"Isolationist," they called him, shuddering at the South Dakotan who devoted much of his life to shipping American food around the world. To people exhausted by years of wretched, indefensible war--like me, for the first time granted a presidential candidate I could zealously vote for -- these words were so, so long overdue. In many ways, they still are.

For his nobility, McGovern has been cursed for decades. When Newt Gingrich was riding high after his victorious off-year elections of 1994, the worst thing he could say about Bill Clinton (who had indeed, with Taylor Branch, run McGovern's Texas campaign) was that he was "an enemy of normal Americans" and a "counterculture McGovernik." The real George McGovern, crushed by Richard Nixon in 1972, must be remembered as the man who stood up to recover America's honor. R.I.P.

Cliff Owen-Pool/Getty Images

Obit Desk

Honoring Chris Stevens

How the U.S. ambassador killed this week in Benghazi would have handled Libya.

The Sept. 11 killing of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens is a disaster for Libya's post-Qaddafi transition. The perpetrators of the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi ruthlessly exploited Libya's fluid security situation and capitalized on the symbolism of 9/11, all to undermine the country's heretofore impressive steps towards democracy and endanger its burgeoning relationship with the United States.

I met Ambassador Stevens on a handful of occasions. He was a casual and approachable man who boasted an impressive personal touch. His killing is not only a tragedy for both Americans and Libyans -- it is an attack on the engagement efforts between the two countries that he symbolized. It is no small irony that Stevens was killed as he was in Benghazi to open up an American cultural center. The likely long-term effect of this tragedy is that the U.S. mission in Benghazi will be shut down indefinitely, and plans to open a full consulate will be shelved. This is terrible news for the new Libya: Benghazi needs the mission, the cultural center, and the consulate to help overcome its decades of isolation under Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Stevens worked tirelessly to support a free Libya. Since his untimely death, he has received well-deserved praise from all quarters for his work in the country. It seems only natural to ask, then, how he would handle the crisis that Libya currently finds itself in. As a staunch advocate of increased U.S. engagement in Libya, he frequently spoke about the nuts and bolts that would be needed to move the U.S.-Libyan relationship to the next level -- seemingly trivial things like deploying a full-time commercial officer to work in the U.S. Embassy and smoothing the visa hurdles that prevent more Libyan students from studying in the United States. He was especially a believer in giving the Libyans whatever technical expert they were clamoring for -- the last time I spoke with him, he told me that his Libyan counterparts wanted Americans with experience in integrating war veterans back into society. If he were still alive, Stevens would understand that cowering inside the embassy has the potential to make Libya more, not less, dangerous for U.S. personnel.

The murder of Stevens, as well as other American and Libyan personnel, has unsurprisingly overshadowed the country's recent positive developments. On July 7, free and fair elections were held in Libya and a non-Islamist majority was elected to the General National Congress (GNC). The new body, which assumed power on Aug. 8, had been taking steps to combat the low-level militia violence that has plagued the country since the fall of Qaddafi. That progress is now being called into question. Just like Egyptian terrorists who attack tourists at the pyramids or at Sinai's beaches, the Libyan militants struck at the very lifeblood of their country's economy. If the security situation deteriorates and foreign companies cut back on their investments, Libya's transition to democracy will have little chance of success, despite the goodwill of both the Libyan people and the international community.

Amid a week filled with tragedy, Libya took another step forward: On Sept. 12, the GNC convened to elect Mustafa Abu Shagur as prime minister, making him the first truly elected leader in the country's history. So joyous was this news that many Libyans resumed their habit  of firing celebratory rounds into the night sky.

Abu Shagur has his work cut out for him. He will have to rapidly distance himself from the mistakes of the NTC, in which he served as deputy prime minister. He will have to choose ministers based on technical merit, and not for partisan or geographical reasons. This especially means not giving the interior ministry to an official from Misrata and the defense ministry to a senior militiaman from Zintan, as they currently are allotted.

Abu Shagur knows that the security situation must be his top priority, but building the fledgling Libyan security services will require active Western, and especially American, involvement. The goal of the consulate attack was to scare away just such assistance. To prevail over the terrorists, the United States must remain involved in Libyan capacity building. As I wrote back in February, there is much more the United States can do to help its Libyan allies, including serving as a matchmaker between Libyan officials and the American private sector and engaging with moderate Islamists and mainstream militias.

Most Libyans realize that the United States is a crucial ally and was instrumental in supporting the revolution. A recent Gallup survey found that Libyans' views of the United States were the most favorable in the history of its polling of the Arab Middle East. Abu Shagur's election provides another piece of evidence: The new Libyan prime minister is an American citizen -- proof that ordinary Libyans don't harbor strong anti-U.S. sentiments.

Though Abu Shagur must renounce his U.S. citizenship before being sworn in as prime minister, he will remain a willing friend and partner with the United States. Nonetheless, the bilateral relationship is now being put to the test. The changing security restrictions on foreign diplomats in Libya in the wake of this tragedy will present a massive challenge: Non-essential U.S. embassy staff have already left Libya and the future of cultural outreach and education programs are up in the air. Pre-existing security protocols have already limited the movements of diplomats outside their embassies. How can diplomats build personal connections without traveling around the country, or even around the capital?

Paradoxically, this is exactly the moment that outreach programs and a human touch are most required. Sending 50 marines to help the Libyans wage their upcoming counteroffensive against the militants throughout eastern Libya is necessary -- the Libyans lack the capacity themselves -- but is unlikely to drastically help matters.

Foreign investment?

Libya not only needs security for its own sake, but to encourage foreign investment that will bolster its economy and consequently provide a better life for its people. These concerns are currently the largest barrier to foreign companies entering the Libyan market. A common misconception holds that most foreign companies operating in Libya are in the oil sector. In fact, this isn't a growth sector for American companies -- but helping the Libyans spend their petrodollars on infrastructure and diversifying their economy is.

The updated State Department travel warning issued on Sept. 12 could have been even more restrictive, but fortunately it was wisely understated. It only warns U.S. citizens against nonessential travel to Libya -- it does not advise them to leave Libya immediately. However, this is a distinction that might be lost on some businessmen, who undoubtedly have the murder of the U.S. ambassador and his colleagues fresh on their minds.

Before the attack, there was a sense that Libya's sporadic violence consisted of regional or tribal conflicts that did not pose much direct threat to foreigners. It will be extremely dangerous if this healthy perception shifts. If America cuts and runs or lashes out in revenge, security and stability will deteriorate, foreign direct investment will dry up, and the Libyan economy outside of the oil sector will stagnate. That will provide fertile soil for the worst elements inside Libya to regain a foothold.

Carefully crafted American engagement can help restore positive momentum to the political transition currently underway in Libya. In the wake of the savage killing of its ambassador, it’s time for the United States to double down.