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Mark Shields: Jim Webb May Be Presidential Long-Shot, But He Was Right About War

In September 2002, before the Bush administration got its green light from a supine Congress and a full six months before the United States would actually invade Iraq, he wrote in The Washington Post, confronting directly the “neoconservatives that began beating the war drums on Iraq before the dust had even settled on the World Trade Center” and wisely warning that “the issue before us is not simply whether the United States should end the regime of Saddam Hussein, but whether we as a nation are prepared to physically occupy territory in the Middle East for the next 30 to 50 years.”

The former Marine — who in Vietnam combat earned the Navy Cross, a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts and to this day carries shrapnel in one kidney and at the base of his skull — warned his readers: “In Japan, American occupation forces quickly became 50,000 friends. In Iraq, they would quickly become 50,000 terrorist targets.”

That is what Jim Webb — who had been, under President Ronald Reagan, the first Naval Academy graduate to serve as secretary of the Navy and who would win election, as an anti-war Democrat, to the U.S. Senate from Virginia and along the way author 10 books — prophetically wrote more than 12 years ago.

Two decades earlier, as a journalist for PBS’ MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, he had won an Emmy for his October 1983 coverage of a Marine platoon in Lebanon. The platoon’s mission was unclear, but it was clearly dangerous. (This was just one month before the Beirut barracks bombing by terrorists, which killed 220 Marines.) This is how Webb closed his report: “These men are trusting their very lives to the wisdom of our leaders. Our government’s obligation to them, which was too frequently betrayed in Vietnam, is to proceed with a clarity of purpose that matches their own trust and commitment.”

Webb once recalled being in Lebanon with “a Marine outpost where the platoon was taking fire from a Druze outpost because there was a Lebanese army position co-located with the Marines.” He continued: “And then some unknown militia started joining in just because it was Beirut. Then the Syrians came up over one ridge and were firing 25 millimeters down into it. And a young Marine turned around to me and said, ‘Sir, never get involved in a five-sided argument.’” Webb added: “a five-sided argument that has been going on for 2,000 years.” What that young Marine said in 1983 is as true today as it was then.

Webb is thinking about another fight with long odds, seeking the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. He has none of Hillary Clinton’s enormous strengths — sky-high poll numbers, important endorsements, deep financial support and a history-making gender story.

Webb is anything but a natural candidate. He can inspire loyalty and admiration but little excitement. He is not good at the grip-and-grin or the personal chitchat of working a room full of strangers. Webb is an economic populist who has taken on Wall Street and has been lousy at raising money. To call him a dark horse may be an overstatement.

But make no mistake about it: On the central foreign policy and national security decisions our country has confronted over the past 31 years, nobody in public life — nobody — has been so thoughtful, so fearless or so right as Jim Webb. And if, by the fall of 2015, the Middle East has, sadly, turned into another costly, deadly and divisive quagmire for the United States, would some Democrats in Iowa be ready to support a genuine combat hero who has had the wisdom and the guts to oppose war?

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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