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Bush, McCain and the old world order at Fort Lewis

As Arizona Senator John McCain prepares to speak to a gathering of service members and their families at Fort Lewis, US President George W. Bush converses with several Soldiers on stage. (KRISTIN ROYALTY, CIV, USAF)

American presidents have been visiting the Pacific Northwest for nearly 140 years.

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Rutherford B. Hayes came in 1880. Benjamin Harrison was here in 1891. Teddy Roosevelt visited for the first time in 1903, and came back later when he ran as a third party candidate. President Taft was here during the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.

Warren G. Harding gave his last public speech in Seattle at the University of Washington stadium in 1923 before dying a few days later in San Francisco.

Franklin D. Roosevelt came to Bonneville Dam in 1937, and made a secret visit to Seattle in 1942, and a non-secret visit in 1944. JFK spoke at the UW centennial in 1961.

And the list goes on. But sometimes, it all seems like so much ancient history

That’s why it’s worth remembering the context and backstory for when President George W. Bush and Senator John McCain visited what’s now JBLM 14 years ago this week.

On the cusp of Summer 2004, it was a heady time. And though it seems like only yesterday, it was a much different world.

President George W. Bush was running for re-election, and he and Vice President Cheney would face John Kerry and running mate John Edwards in November. Bush and Cheney would, of course, prevail.

The horrific images of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were less than three years in the past and still fresh in everyone’s mind. The war in Afghanistan was also nearing the three-year mark, and the Iraq War was only 15 months old.

On that morning back in June 2004, President Bush thanked the members of the military and their families for their sacrifices, and acknowledge the soldiers from Fort Lewis who had died in Iraq or Afghanistan. The president also gave the soldiers of Fort Lewis special recognition that day for what they’d done in the post-9/11 era.

“The soldiers of Fort Lewis are serving on the front lines of the war on terror, and you’re on the cutting edge of military transformation, and I thank you for that,” President Bush told the boisterous Army crowd.

“This is the home of the Army’s first two Stryker Brigades,” Bush continued. “These combat teams are built around 21st Century armored vehicles that can maneuver in urban terrain and get soldiers to the fight with unmatched speed and power.”

In Samarra,” the President said, “the Iraqis have taken to calling the Stryker Brigades the ‘Ghost Riders,’ because they arrive in near total silence, strike the enemy without warning.”

“The terrorists in Iraq have plenty to fear from the Ghost Riders of Fort Lewis, Washington,” President Bush said.

The crowd of soldiers roared their approval.

Meanwhile, the Iraq War was about to take a turn.

The US government was about two weeks away from handing power in Iraq to what was called the Iraqi Interim Government. In a surprise move meant to deter a timed uprising, Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), would step down a few days before the June 30 expiration date of the CPA.

Bremer’s work leading the Coalition Provisional Authority was criticized, mainly for the so-called “de-Baathification” that put 200,000 of Saddam Hussein’s soldiers out of work. These former troops would go on to help fuel a long and deadly insurgency in the post-Saddam era. Under Bremer, the CPA also lost track of millions of dollars in cash.

In June 2004, deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had been captured – famously plucked from a “spider hole” – and was awaiting trial. He would ultimately be hanged in a Baghdad prison in late 2006.

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Senator McCain, a decorated Navy veteran and former POW, had spoken just prior to the president that day 14 years ago, also thanking Fort Lewis soldiers for fighting in Afghanistan and for prosecuting the Iraq War — regardless of whether the reason for attacking Saddam Hussein in the first place, the alleged presence of weapons of mass destruction, had shifted somewhat.

“You have taken the fight to our enemies, al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and you took the fight to Iraq with the tyrant Saddam whether he possessed the terrible weapons that would’ve turned this war into a fight for survival or not,” Senator McCain said.

“He had used them before and was, I have no doubt, firmly determined to possess them again someday for what terrible purpose we can only imagine with dread,” McCain continued.

“Moreover, you have, by your service and sacrifice, given hope to a people long oppressed, long oppressed by a savage tyrant that, if they have the courage and the will for it, they may live in peace and freedom,” the Arizona senator said.

Just a few days before Bush and McCain visited Fort Lewis, the 9/11 Commission had weighed in on whether or not there was any connection between the 9/11 attacks and Saddam Hussein’s regime, as had often been insinuated by the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq War.

As President Bush spoke to soldiers and their families at Fort Lewis, he compared the chaotic situation in Iraq 14 months after the fall of Saddam Hussein to the devastation present in Germany a year or so after the fall of Berlin and the death of Adolph Hitler.

He tried to refute the pessimism that some people had then about the complex situation in Iraq. And he did this by reading from a New York Times piece from November 1946 about the mess in Germany in November 1946.

President Bush tried to draw parallels to what would come in Iraq, and he clearly embraced the post-World War II “world order” that has been called into question so much lately.

“Fortunately, our predecessors stood firm in the face of cynicism and doubt, because you see, we helped the German people rise above hunger and hopelessness,” President Bush said.

“We helped them resist the designs of the Soviet Union. We overcame many obstacles because we knew that the hope for a secure America was a peaceful and democratic Europe,” Bush said.

But metaphors aside, there were legitimate (and what turned out to be justified) concerns about the reasons that had been given by the United States for attacking Iraq in 2003.

A Seattle Times editorial on the day Bush and McCain visited was headlined “A war sold on deception.” In addition to the weapons of mass destruction that had still not been found, the editorial said that the 9/11 Commission “found no credible evidence of cooperation between Iraq and al Qaeda in the specific assault, or broader cooperation between Saddam Hussein and terrorist networks.”

About five weeks after Bush and McCain spoke, Senate candidate from Illinois Barack Obama would speak at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Four years later, Obama would secure the Democratic nomination for president.

Senator John McCain would run against Obama for president in 2008. He would choose then-Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, and the two would run on a platform consistent with the traditional conservative agenda – lower taxes, smaller government – of the Republican Party.

Nowadays, McCain is at odds with President Trump and many of his Republican colleagues over policies foreign and domestic. He is also battling what is likely terminal brain cancer.

And the old world order, in which the US helped rebuild the economy of Germany and so much of Western Europe and served as the de facto leader of NATO and other alliances, also seems to be facing a battle of its own.

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