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Rejecting Recycling

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Maybe, like one of those old recruiting posters with Uncle Sam pointing his finger at you, the picture really does change depending on where you stand.

Columnist David Broder -- famed as the “dean of the Washington press corps” -- noted in The Washington Post that all the trash containers in sight at the Republican National Convention were labeled “recycle only.” So, he wrote, it only made sense that Republicans recycled, too.


“They decided to treat the delegates and a national television audience to speeches by three of the most familiar and weather-beaten figures in American politics,” Broder wrote, namely President Bush, Fred Thompson and Joe Lieberman.

That’s an interesting way of looking at the Republican National Convention, especially since it comes just one week after a real recycle-fest.

In Denver, Barack Obama -- self-declared agent of change -- cribbed heavily from John Kerry’s talking points four years ago. To take just one example, Obama insisted (as Kerry had) that the war in Iraq was a distraction from “the fight against the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11,” in Afghanistan.

Well, if Obama wants to nail his colors to the mast of the same ship Lt. John Kerry guided to defeat in 2004, good luck to him. Maybe, to torture the metaphor, the community organizer from Illinois will even be able to pilot that ship safely into port. Still, the fact remains that there’s very little change and plenty of recycling happening on the left.

And while Broder’s correct that Lieberman is indeed a veteran at addressing national political gatherings, his role in this one was anything but “recycled.” Here’s a man who never left the Democratic Party, but watched sadly as it left him. Lieberman came within a whisker of being elected vice president as a Democrat in 2000, yet was here to extol the qualifications of a member of the opposite party. That’s unique in the history of American politics.

Meanwhile, the GOP introduced Sarah Palin, the fresh young governor of Alaska, as its vice presidential candidate. Say what you want about Palin’s experience or lack thereof, but she’s anything but recycled.


In fact, the only parts of this convention that felt like we’d heard them before were the repeated references to McCain’s time as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. It’s a moving story, well told by Thompson, Palin and McCain himself.

Luckily, though, Vietnam simply doesn’t have the hold on our country it did 10 or 20 years ago. Back in 1987, a brilliant student noted that, “the legacy of Vietnam is unlikely to soon recede as an important influence on America’s senior military.” In his Ph.D. thesis at Princeton, this student added, “The frustrations of Vietnam are too deeply etched in the minds of those who now lead the services and the combatant commands.” And that man, David Petraeus, was correct.

It was just as deeply etched in the minds of commentators and citizens. Just days before the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in 2003, one liberal e-mailed to me, “This is just like Vietnam.” It wasn’t, of course, and it isn’t. But that was his only frame of reference, and we instinctively look to the country’s last war to provide guidance on how to fight the next one.

Today, General Petraeus is a big reason Vietnam is receding, because he authored the biggest, most important change in recent years.

At the end of 2006, the war in Iraq looked as if it could end in disaster for our country. The Iraq Study Group recommended the U.S. “begin to move its combat forces out of Iraq responsibly,” code for “accept defeat.”

Petraeus outlined a new approach, the “surge,” which involved securing areas and holding them. Many senators, including Obama and his vice presidential pick, Joe Biden, opposed it. “The president and others who support the surge have it exactly backwards,” Biden said in December 2006. He urged dividing Iraq into three partially autonomous ethnic regions.


As recently as this spring, Biden added, “There is little evidence the Iraqis will settle their differences peacefully any time soon.” And maybe that’s true. But they have a chance to, and the U.S. can emerge victorious. Because of Petraeus and his leadership in Iraq, there’s a new benchmark to measure future military engagements against. Vietnam is less important than ever.

“During a crisis, more than at any other time,” Petraeus wrote in 1987, “a nation is its decision makers; and they, due to the stress and incomplete information associated with crises, are very likely to seek guidance or insights from the past.”

Americans should remember that, as we select our next decision maker.

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