At first, McCarthyism was a partisan affair. Wisconsin’s junior senator rocketed to political stardom in February 1950, when he told the Republican Women’s Club in Wheeling, West Virginia, that Harry Truman’s State Department was infested with Communists. As that year’s midterm campaign progressed, Joe McCarthy’s staff helped doctor a photo of Maryland Democrat Millard Tydings, making him appear to be huddled with former U.S. Communist Party chief Earl Browder. 1952 brought more of the same, with McCarthy accusing the Truman and Roosevelt administrations of “20 years of treason.” And it worked. With McCarthy’s help, Republicans took the House, Senate, and White House for the first time in 24 years.
But, in 1953, McCarthy branched out. He began referring to “21 years of treason.” And he went after the military, viciously bullying a brigadier general and World War II hero named Ralph Zwicker. Finally, Dwight Eisenhower— who had kept a cynical silence as McCarthy slandered Democrats—realized that his beloved Army and his own neck were at stake. In 1954, the White House and the Army counterattacked, hatching the ethics investigation that ultimately brought McCarthy down. The jig was up.
The Bush administration’s McCarthyism also began as a partisan affair. In 2002, Georgia Republicans interspersed Democrat Max Cleland’s face with those of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Bush said that the Democratic-controlled Senate that opposed his version of the homeland security bill was “more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people.” Two years later, attacking John Kerry for supposed flip-flopping during the presidential campaign, he warned that “you can embolden an enemy by sending a mixed message.”
The White House didn’t argue, as McCarthy did, that Democrats actively support America’s enemies. (While some ‘50s Democrats had indeed sympathized with communism earlier in their careers, no current Democrats ever sympathized with Al Qaeda.) But Bush and his minions have done the next best thing: They have argued that Democrats don’t actively oppose America’s enemies. And, this year, as the United States approaches its third national election since September 11, they are at it again. Desperate to focus on terrorism but not Iraq, they have made treatment of detainees a central campaign issue. And, as if on cue, House Majority Leader John Boehner last week wondered if Democrats are “more interested in protecting the terrorists than protecting the American people.”
But there’s a problem, and, oddly enough, it’s the same one that bedeviled McCarthy a half-century ago: the U.S. military. The military, as it happens, believes strongly in the very Geneva Conventions prohibitions on torture that the Bush administration wants to evade. Soldiers know that they could become detainees themselves and that the Geneva Conventions could be the difference between life and death. So the military has turned, once again, to its most potent political allies. And the result, once again, is that McCarthyism is no longer a partisan affair. To attack the Democrats as soft on terrorists, the Bush administration must now say the same about Republicans John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and John Warner, arguably the most pro-military members of the U.S. Senate, and about Colin Powell, the most celebrated military man of our age.
In fact, the McCain-Graham-Warner-Powell rebellion may herald nothing less than the end of the war on terrorism as Bush defines it. Consider their arguments. “Some people,” says Graham, consider the Geneva Conventions “a waste of time, but I know they have been helpful.” In other words, the United States should respect international law. Contrast that with John Bolton, who, in the late ‘90s, said, “It is a big mistake for us to grant any validity to international law, even when it may seem in our short-term interest to do so— because, over the long term, the goal of those who think that international law really means anything are those who want to constrict the United States.” And it’s not just international law. In demanding compliance with the Geneva Conventions, Graham, McCain, Warner, and Powell all cited international opinion. Here again, the battle lines are drawn. Responding to Powell’s claim that “the world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism,” Bill Kristol mocked “the notion that we’ll get lots of credit in Europe by going the extra mile [on torture].” Kristol is expressing the Bush administration’s view: It doesn’t matter whether the United States respects human rights because non-Americans will hate us anyway. Our actions are irrelevant; the real issue is their pathology.
But the divide actually cuts deeper. It’s not just that the Bushies don’t think it matters if the United States violates human rights; to them, the United States doesn’t violate human rights. Human rights are not what the Geneva Conventions say; human rights are whatever the United States does. When Amnesty International condemned abuses at America’s anti-terrorist prison system, Bush didn’t even bother to rebut the specifics. He simply called the allegation “absurd. ... The United States is a country that promotes freedom around the world.” Dick Cheney said the charge showed that Amnesty wasn’t a serious human rights organization. As Arthur Schlesinger once wrote of John Foster Dulles, the Bush administration has “a complacent conviction of American moral infallibility.”
This is the most fundamental part of the conservative foreign policy rebellion. McCain and his allies are not merely arguing that respect for human rights serves U.S. interests. They are arguing that human rights actually exist- -that they constitute a universal standard above and beyond U.S. actions. The conservative rebels have taken aim at the moral relativism undergirding the Bush administration’s supposed commitment to universal liberty. In so doing, they have made it much harder for Bush to equate opposing his policies with coddling the terrorists and endangering the United States. And, just like Eisenhower in 1954, they have reasserted a different kind of conservatism—one that can proudly show its face to the world. Maybe, just maybe, the jig is up.
This article originally ran in the October 2, 2006 issue of the magazine.