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Thursday, Sept. 14, 2006 | Duncan Hunter has represented parts of San Diego County in Congress since defeating the redoubtable Lionel Van Deerlin in 1980, thanks mainly to Ronald Reagan’s coattails. Van Deerlin, the first Democrat ever elected to Congress from San Diego (the Copley press managed to keep Democrats out of office here for most of the past century), fell victim to the charge – like everyone who has opposed Hunter since – that he was “weak on defense.”

Hunter has rarely met a weapons system or request from the Pentagon he didn’t like, and our huge national deficits and weak dollar owe a lot to “conservatives” like him. His extremism was enough to isolate him from other California Republicans (except for his now-jailed protégé, Duke Cunningham) and from the party leadership after the GOP took House control in 1994. But seniority finally brought him chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee, where he can throw our money away to his heart’s desire.

Hunter’s profligacy and xenophobic isolationism is traceable through a quarter century of House votes. His latest excess, however, might be too much even for voters in the heavily gerrymandered and supposedly Republican “safe” 52nd District: Like George Bush, Hunter believes that the U.S. military should have the right to torture prisoners.

Trouble is, the U.S. military doesn’t want to torture prisoners anymore. It has seen the light, and now defends the Geneva Conventions against torture. In hearings last week, military lawyers stated that revelations about Abu Graib, Guantánamo and secret CIA installations have damaged both the national interest and the military’s reputation.

Bush, as we’ve seen over the past week, is thinking about elections. He sees fellow Iraq-war champion Tony Blair being forced from office by a party revolt in Britain and fears a similar backlash in November. The polls are bad, showing Republicans risk losing the House and maybe even the Senate.

Trying to staunch the bleeding and push Iraq off front pages, Bush announced the transfer of 14 al Qaeda suspects to Guantánamo to coincide with this week’s remembrance of 9/11. Along with that, he asked Congress to override both the Geneva conventions and recent Supreme Court rulings against torture and secret trials.

The military wants no part of it. As for Congress – well, it is up for re-election in November, not Bush, and members aren’t sure a pro-torture vote is such a nifty idea. Many members agree with the message military lawyers gave to Hunter’s committee last week: Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo and those secret CIA prisons have really hurt.

Poor Duncan Hunter. It’s easy to be a cat’s paw for Bush-Cheney and the Pentagon when they agree, but what if they don’t?

In the end, it wasn’t so hard. Hunter chose the pro-torture, macho manliness of Bush and Cheney (but where were they, Duncan, when you were fighting in Vietnam?) over a gaggle of wimpy military lawyers arguing for the rule of law. Congress will now vote on whether or not to support the famous Justice Department “torture memo” of 2002 and renounce the Geneva Conventions and Supreme Court rulings against torture and secret trials, which protect U.S. soldiers as well as those of other nations.

How has it gone so wrong for Republicans? Not long ago, analysts were predicting the GOP would be in power for years. The swath of red states stretching from the Deep South, up the Mississippi, across the Midwest nearly to the Pacific was too formidable a GOP base for Democrats to overcome with their urban majorities. As for the presidency, the Electoral College skews elections toward Republicans even when their man loses the popular vote, as in 2000.

Iraq has made the difference. Flash back to when hawks were soaring on the eve of Bush’s war: “Texas poker,” wrote columnist Robert Novak, gleefully;” “The gamble of a lifetime,” intoned the once-estimable Washington Post, thrilled with it all. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the neo-cons browbeat Congress, public opinion, the uniformed military and the nation’s editorial pages into backing a war that anyone with even a modest sense of history could see was doomed. “Historical amnesia,” it’s called.

No one stood up to Bush – except, remarkably, the Supreme Court in its decisions on torture and secret trials (the “Hamdan” and “enemy combatant” cases).

Here we are three years, 45,000 dead Iraqi civilians, 2,650 dead Americans, one pulverized nation and a chaotic Middle East later, and Bush has lost his bet. If it were a true poker game he’d throw in his cards and slink away, as Blair is doing, but in our system we’re stuck with him for two more years, though he’s broke.

Bush is desperate. His spokesman now blames Bush’s father for the mess, arguing he should have finished off Saddam when he had the chance. One supposes W. himself was behind that bit of Oedipal knife-work, settling scores with the father and friends of father who opposed the son’s war from the beginning. Bush persists in Iraq not because he is right – events show he is not – but for fear of losing face, the age-old cause of so many misbegotten human events.

The desperation also shows in every White House move. Cheney invents something called “Islamic fascism” to rally people back to the fold. Not only does “Islamic fascism” neatly lump wildly different groups together – Iraqi resisters, Iran, Taliban, Hamas, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, etc. etc. – but it invokes America’s great crusade against the fascists.

War critics, says Cheney, are “appeasers,” another World War II code-word. Bush goes to Salt Lake City – that’s Utah, the most right-wing state in the union n to tell the American Legion about the dangers of “appeasing Islamic fascism.”

Enter Rocky Anderson, Salt Lake City mayor. Okay, so Rocky Anderson’s a Democrat in a state of Republicans and an apostate in a state run by Mormons. Anderson is detested by the Mormon media for comparing life under the Mormons to life under the Taliban, but he’s also been praised as “best elected official in the state,” “Utahn of the year” and “political leader of the year.” by various non-Mormon organizations.

“We won’t be silent,” he told cheering crowds. “We will continue to resist the lies, the deception, the outrages. We will grow and grow, regardless of political party, unified in our insistence upon the truth.” An anti-war former Marine captain named Eric Martineau, a Mormon, wearing dress blues, told the crowd, “I want to let Utah know that pre-emptive war is not LDS (Mormon) doctrine.”

“If they lack support in Utah, my God, they’re in trouble,” said the Rev. Tom Goldsmith of Salt Lake City’s First Unitarian Church.

Let’s hope voters, including in San Diego’s 52nd District, carry that thought with them into the elections.

James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Submit a letter to the editor here.

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