Back in 2003, few Americans had heard of Lt. Col. Allen West, then commanding a battalion of roughly 600 in Iraq.
Attacks on his platoon suddenly spiked, and his intelligence operations got wind of an Iraqi policeman having leaked their maneuvers, in advance, to Islamic terrorists. West got nowhere by interrogating the suspected collaborator for several hours. Ever mindful of his men’s safety — and of a rumored plot to assassinate him and attack the entire battalion — West drew his service revolver and fired near the man’s head. The policeman started talking.
West averted the plot, but also faced a potential court martial, and was called to testify before Congress. “I’d go through hell with a gasoline can” to save his men’s lives, a nonplussed West told Congress.
The Army merely fined West and relieved him of his command, ending his otherwise stellar 22-year Army career.
But to West, every day offers a new opportunity. After briefly teaching in a high school, then serving as a civilian military adviser in Afghanistan, West decided to seek to fulfill his yen for public service from another route. In 2008, he sought the congressional seat in Florida’s 22nd Congressional District, running against incumbent Ron Klein. West garnered 48% of the vote, despite raising only $500,000 against Klein’s millions. And in the tradition of his never-say-die, lower-middle class, Atlanta inner-city parents, the late Herman West Sr. and Elizabeth West, the 48-year-old retired lieutenant colonel is running again — more resolute than ever.
Alyssa A. Lappen: Is it ironic? You were relieved of your military command during a Republican presidency, yet you’re running for Congress as a Republican?
Lt. Col. (ret.) Allen West: No. I don’t see irony. What happened had nothing to do with politics. My running on a Republican ticket is basically due to my conservative politics, and in line with what should be the Republican policy platform.
AAL: Would it have been the same under any administration?
West: I don’t think the administration had anything to do with the decision of my field commander or the advocate general advising him. It was very helpful to have members of Congress and the Senate read out a resolution in support of me and my actions. I stand by what I did. It was based on my men on the ground, not political ramifications or anything like that.
AAL: What was the exact circumstance of this man who was attempting to assassinate you?
West: He was was an Iraqi policeman. We had human intelligence saying he was leaking information to the enemy. We had seen an uptick in ambushes and such things. The word on the street was, I was an enemy target. We were very successful and I was a visible and effective commander.
AAL: If elected, what might you change to affect future commanders facing the same situation?
West: Having been a person on this 21st century battlefield, from Desert Storm, Iraq, and also Afghanistan, I bring a wealth of knowledge from the tactical level that can help us shape our strategic level decisions. I would seek to be on the House Armed Services Committee.
We need to look at current rules of engagement. Are they stymieing the efforts of our men and women on the battlefield? Are they hindering our initiative against this enemy? We should look at things happening with the defense budget. For example, I am really upset about how we continue to put all these non-related amendments on defense appropriation bills. We need to clean that up.
Also, how do we move ahead to taper our force to combat this enemy — a non-state, non-uniformed belligerent on the battlefield? And pay attention to future threats. China continues to build what may be the largest naval force that we will ever know.
AAL: What other principles come from the military?
West: We seek to make a difference. I’m not from a political family or background. We have to reestablish the fact that any American can be a part of the process. In running for office, they have a shot at getting to Congress, and doing the business of being a citizen legislator. Our political system can accommodate people from every walk of life. Let Americans try to guide this thing in the right way.
People need to show it can be done. In 2008, we proved that someone resolute and focused, with a principled message, can get attention. We got 48% of the vote in the 22nd Congressional District of Florida.
This is huge. The key is for people to see this has to be done. Plato said, those who refuse to engage in politics will be governed by their inferiors.
AAL: An organization was started in Texas by Tim Cox, a former process manager at Dell Computers. He’s just fed up with Congress. Probably most Americans are.
West: Now wait, it’s interesting. Every cycle, people say they’re fed up with Congress. Last year, Congress had what then was one of the lowest approval ratings, maybe 20% or 21%. Yet 93% of incumbents were reelected. So people continue to say that. I hope finally the American people will stand up and bring those words to fruition. But let’s face it, there are districts where representatives will not be voted out. Folks are very happy with the person they have. It’ll be interesting to see if people go back with the courage to say Congress is terrible, but our congressman is okay.
AAL: One difficulty is beating incumbents. You have all this gerrymandering. Your home district is a good example — a long skinny north-south stretch through Florida, cutting out big sections of key towns through which it runs. And the House of Representatives maps such districts to protect incumbents.
West: It is very hard to get rid of them. You need a strategic perspective. If Americans want to take the gavel out of Nancy Pelosi’s hand, they have to look across the country and find 40 to 55 seats, maybe even 60, where you can be competitive and make a difference. Congressional District 22 is one of those. And for whatever reason, my district has gotten a lot of national attention.
AAL: Will incumbent Ron Klein run again?
West: Yes, absolutely. I don’t think he expected me to run again — he felt I was a one trick pony. When I was not successful he figured I’d go away. But I am committed to this country, and committed to continuing service to the people. People now know what I stand for. The name recognition has improved. The national level attention, for whatever reason, is humbling. But I think Klein is now in a very tough situation, running against someone like myself, who isn’t a career politician.