When Jim Webb announced that he is thinking seriously about running for president in 2016, it didn’t exactly excite hearts and minds in the Beltway. The former senator from Virginia is widely regarded as an odd duck who stubbornly goes his own way. He dropped out of electoral politics after one term in the Senate and resumed his successful career as a writer. Webb’s bestselling novel Fields of Fire captured the reality of the Vietnam War, in which he had fought as a Marine platoon leader.
Wounded twice in battle, Webb was awarded the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism. After the war, he wrote scholarly studies on war and national defense. Ronald Reagan appointed him secretary of the Navy, though Webb is a working-class Democrat, descended from hardscrabble country people in Arkansas.
Instead of becoming more hawkish, as defense intellectuals often do when they acquire status and influence, Webb has become increasingly critical of how US military force is used and misused. His biography is what gives his candidacy potential significance. It is not that he has much likelihood of winning the nomination, but Webb has a chance to do something far greater for the country. Given his résumé and valor in war, Webb has the authority (and the guts) to provoke a profound national debate about the nature of US militarism.
Webb’s unique perspective may be familiar to political insiders or readers of his books, but they probably aren’t to the broad public. Six months before George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Webb prophetically warned against it. “Those who are pushing for a unilateral war in Iraq know full well that there is no exit strategy if we invade,” Webb wrote in The Washington Post. In 2004, Webb called Bush’s war “the greatest strategic blunder in modern memory.” Ten years later, he is still right.
In 2007, Chris Matthews dubbed him “the antiwar warrior.” That’s a clever label, but it fundamentally misconstrues Webb’s position. He is not a pacifist—that is, he is not against wars fought to defend against real threats to the nation. What Webb opposes are the reckless and limitless interventions that the United States has initiated during the post–Cold War era of the past decades.
Presidents of both parties, including Barack Obama, have strayed from the old principles. “It is not a healthy thing when the world’s dominant military and economic power has a foreign policy based on vagueness,” Webb observed. He had in mind Bush, but also Obama’s vague purpose in entering the bloody civil war in Syria. “There is no such thing,” Webb has asserted, as “humanitarian war,” a feel-good concept popularized by some of Obama’s national security advisers. Webb has not challenged the president’s authority to bomb Syria, but says “the question of [Obama’s] judgment will remain to be seen.”