If there is one thing the veteran population won’t abide, it’s bullshit. With its decisions and actions the past few weeks, Paul Rieckhoff’s Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) has erected a towering monument of bullshit in its own name, and is now in reputational free-fall with the population it claims to represent. It’s unfortunate, given the considerable good done by the organization over the past dozen years … that it is now devolving into just another service organization that has lost its way.
The trouble started when CEO Rieckhoff decided to slap the IAVA label on a forum ostensibly designed to give veterans a chance to assess presidential candidates with questions and answers focused on foreign policy, national defense, and veteran issues.
There was just one problem. Not all of the presidential candidates were invited. Much to the surprise and chagrin of its membership, IAVA jumped straight into the flea-ridden bed occupied by the media and establishment political parties and snuggled up to the idea of a manufactured presidency rather than one built on voter choice.
Libertarian Gary Johnson, who at last reputable estimate was favored by nearly 39% of the veteran population, was inexplicably locked out of the so-called forum. This despite the fact Johnson’s foreign policy statements are particularly attractive to veterans and their families. This despite the fact veterans wanted him there. This despite the fact he represents the only plausible hope for a genuine change in national defense strategy, something IAVA has claimed repeatedly it seeks on behalf of its membership.
But locking Johnson out of the event wasn’t IAVA’s worst sin. That dishonor is reserved for the moral cowardice displayed by Rieckhoff and IAVA in refusing to confront or accept accountability for Johnson’s snubbing. IAVA fed its constituents a decision laced with political partisanship … pretending to broker a legitimate debate while standing on the scale for Hillary Clinton. It then doubled down on this brazenly partisan conduct by dodging questions about it. This isn’t the behavior of a veteran service organization so much as a shadow political action committee. Why not dispense with the pretense and open an office on K Street?
For nigh on a week leading up to the event, Rieckhoff refused to entertain queries about Johnson’s exclusion, choosing to run out the clock rather than have an authentic discussion. When cornered by veteran advocates, he passed the buck … blaming NBC and the two campaigns while reassuring veterans that IAVA is “not the enemy.”
But there’s the rub. Political campaigns are adversarial by nature. They are contests. For the 39% of veterans who favor Johnson, IAVA made itself “their enemy” by freezing their guy out of a process in which he fairly should have been included. IAVA made itself “their enemy” by lining itself up against the sort of open, democratic process so many of its membership fought and bled to instantiate in foreign hellholes.
Rieckhoff’s “avoid and dissemble” gambit is tone deaf beyond comprehension, but it’s not just a PR gaffe. It’s a revelatory chain of events that lays bare what IAVA is about. What it is increasingly not about, as this debacle makes apparent, is channeling the voice of veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s about shaping and influencing politics to create policy outcomes favored by CEO Rieckhoff and others atop the IAVA chain of command.
Sometimes, these objectives align with the prevailing attitudes of IAVA membership. Other times, they find Rieckhoff and company cultivating absurdity by supporting a debate between one candidate who voted for the Iraq invasion and another who would likely re-invade if elected. Between one candidate whose approach as Secretary of State helped embolden Vladimir Putin and another who believes Putin is a model leader. Between one candidate whose party has presided over an irresponsible growth in the gap between what our military services are ordered to do and the resources they’re given to do it … and another who makes a mockery of the very notion of responsible policy leadership.
Predictably, the event landed with a thud. Neither candidate said anything new or remotely substantive. Authenticity was in short supply. Veterans got nothing out of the forum they couldn’t have gotten from seven minutes of cursory surfing on stock campaign websites.
The one thing the forum did provide was an opportunity for IAVA to congratulate itself while continuing to ignore the alienation of more than a third of its members. Check out Rieckhoff’s throbbing post-forum statement, which has every indication of having been written long before the event occurred:
Avoiding. Dissembling. Passing the buck. Self-congratulation without regard for the actual result. Staged publicity stunts proxying for meaningful advocacy. And to top it all off, shilling for cash to repeat the cycle all over again. This is exactly the kind of bullshit no-nonsense veterans despise. It signals the beginning of the end for an organization that has done a lot of good along the way, but has perhaps outlived its usefulness and is no longer a veteran voice so much as an unmoored lobbying firm with a quasi-military motif.
Three years ago, when Congress got together and hatched a cloakroom deal to drain billions out of the veteran pension fund, IAVA refused to sign on to the ad hoc advocacy alliance that successfully pressed Congress to repeal the measure and restore pensions to their promised levels. At the time, I and many others felt betrayed … like IAVA had refused to stand with veterans when the chips were down for fear of chafing politicians it wanted to keep onside.
Not much has changed since then. IAVA is only interested in representing veterans to the extent it can do so without making waves. Unfortunately, that constraint halts it well short of being a legitimate advocacy organization.
Veterans don’t need or want another bullshit-spewing PAC pretending to speak for them while privately believing it knows better. They don’t need more politicians using them as leverage. They don’t need more battles waged over an inch or two of policy change when they’re losing by miles.
Veterans need advocates who will fight for them, even and especially when doing so is controversial or politically risky. Given our nation’s historically tortured relationship with its veterans, they need something much better than the current version of the IAVA.