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John Sheirer: Right and wrong ways to back American troops, veterans



Sunday, June 08, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — During his Memorial Day visit with troops in Afghanistan, President Obama said, “When it comes to supporting you and your families, the American people stand united. We support you. We are proud of you. We stand in awe of your service.” The president has strong personal credibility when he praises our veterans. He personally made significant donations to Fisher House Foundation, a program that provides support to wounded soldiers and their families. And his administration has improved veteran services in a number of ways, especially in the areas of veterans’ employment and medical care.

But some won’t accept that the president joins all Americans in supporting our veterans. Since President Obama first came to office, viral right-wing messages during the president’s first term claimed that he was trying to cut military salaries, had threatened to withhold military pay and refused to honor veterans on Memorial Day. These claims are false, as five minutes of basic research reveals.

Another part of Republican efforts to paint the president as anti-military is their obsession with recasting the Benghazi attacks as a scandal. Rather than honestly investigating the matter to find ways to prevent future attacks, Republicans have made dozens of false accusations against the president, none of which have proven accurate.

As their latest attempt to make Benghazi into a scandal once again falters, Republicans have turned to problems in the Veterans Administration for their next attack on the president. Their scapegoating conveniently ignores the fact that the VA problems date back to well before Obama took office and are rooted in the two wars that were launched and mismanaged by the previous administration.

Both Democrats and Republicans need to work together to address the VA problems. Democrats and the president need to make this issue a higher priority, not for political reasons but because it’s the right thing to do for the men and women who put their lives on the line for our nation.

Republicans have a much harder task that mostly involves abandoning petty political games. I doubt they’ll welcome advice for a liberal like me, but Republicans need to make several difficult changes if they hope to lend a hand in addressing this issue.

First, Republicans need to stop using the military and veterans as pawns in their attacks on President Obama. They need to accept the fact that he isn’t running for a third term and pivot from their worn-out strategy of claiming that every issue is somehow the president’s fault. They need to stop trying to say that President Obama and Democrats do not support the American military. That’s a battle that they’ve lost with all but a confused minority of hard-right ideologues.

Second, Republicans need to cooperate with Democrats in taking action to support America’s veterans. Republicans have blocked several bills for veterans, including a veterans’ jobs bill and an expansion of VA medical centers. These weren’t blocked for policy reasons. The current Republican agenda simply cannot allow cooperation with the president and Democrats for fear that successful policies might be viewed as a political victory for the left. Republicans must accept the fact that good policy is a victory for all Americans.

Third, Republicans need to stop using the VA problems as a knee-jerk excuse to claim that government never does anything right. The tired conservative philosophy that government is the enemy can’t guide the Republican Party’s efforts to serve veterans. Like it or not, Republicans must understand that the military is part of the government. Republicans need to stop making the false and absurd claim that the VA problems are proof that Obamacare can’t work either. No government program can be fully effective when it’s being sabotaged, and Republicans have gleefully become the saboteurs of American government.

Fourth, Republicans need to remember that wars and their consequences aren’t free. Lincoln paid for the Civil War with tax increases, and taxes paid for subsequent wars. But the Bush administration pushed through the first wartime tax cut in American history. Those who got the bulk of that tax cut, the wealthy and corporations, also benefit the most from America’s military protection. The direct consequences of tax cuts are reductions in services, and the VA has been hit especially hard by that basic reality.

Finally, Republicans need to alter their war impulses. Many high-profile Republicans have criticized the common-sense foreign policy that President Obama recently outlined in a speech at West Point as “weak” or “appeasing.” Some have even condemned the president for his lack of military actions in Syria, Iran, Russia and elsewhere.

Is the Republican memory so poor that they have forgotten the lessons of recent wars? Those lessons include the fact that war is costly, certainly in terms of dollars, national image, and, most important, human lives. Most Republicans seem to have forgotten that the long lines of veterans who now need the services of an underfunded VA are the direct consequence of wars they helped start in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite the complexity of the VA issue, the bottom line is simple: Those who wish to honor and support veterans must understand the consequences of war, work for peace and forget petty political games. The president and Democrats are on that path. Can Republicans follow?

John Sheirer of Northampton writes a monthly column. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.