In 2003, Allen West was facing a possible court martial hearing that could have put him in prison.
Responsible for over six hundred men as a Lieutenant-Colonel in Iraq, West conducted a harsh interrogation in which he fired gun shots near the head of an Iraqi police officer he suspected of withholding information about a plot to kill him and some of the soldiers under his command. At a hearing over the incident, West defiantly declared that "if it's about the life of my men, I'd go through hell with a gasoline can." And though he said he may not have used the right methods, "if he had to err," he declared, "I would err on the side of not losing my soldiers."
Taking into account mitigating factors, the Army opted not to pursue a full court martial, though it did fine West and relieve him of his command, effectively ending his highly decorated 20-plus year Army career.
Six years later the only person the retired Army warrior threatens is Democratic Congressman Ron Klein of Florida's 22nd Congressional District.
The second term congressman won his seat in the picturesque South Florida district by unseating 13-term Republican representative Clay Shaw in 2006, a disastrous year for Republican incumbents. West, who worked as a high-school history teacher and then a civilian adviser to the U.S. military in Afghanistan after his retirement from the Army, first decided to take a shot at Klein's congressional seat in 2008.
Despite the lack of support by the national party, a near 8 to 1 fundraising disadvantage, and a year in which a popular Democratic presidential nominee was on the ballot, West was able mount a strong showing against Klein, garnering 45% of the vote. Spurred by this better than expected performance, West, 48, is back for a rematch in 2010.
"No matter what you achieve in 22 years in the military, coming into politics is a brand new game," West told me during a recent interview at a Starbucks in Plantation, Florida. "So the party at the state and the national level wasn't too happy with me because I didn't come with millions of dollars in my pocket. But I did come with what I think a lot of people are looking for which is honor, integrity, and character."
Over the course of the hour-long interview, it became abundantly clear that while West may be running for political office, he wasn't an ordinary politician.
"There are three words I hate to hear used. I hate big-tent. I hate inclusiveness. And I hate outreach. I think you stand on the principles that make you great, which transcend everybody in America, and people will come to it," West said, outlining the uncompromising way he approaches politics.
Growing up lower-middle class and black in Atlanta's inner city, West views America as a place where you can achieve anything if you work hard and stand on principle. His father raised him to believe education is important and West heeded the lesson en route to obtaining two master's degrees in addition to his undergraduate degree.
"An empty wagon makes a lot of noise so you should always fill yourself with knowledge so you don't go out and you aren't just sounding and clanging like a symbol," West says--a lesson his father preached to him as a boy. "Education was heavily stressed, and I think that is what you see in my life."
Having spent 22 years as an officer in the military, West has strong opinions on foreign policy. He said that American leaders need a better understanding of the "Islamic terrorist enemy that we are up against."
"If we continue to show this enemy that we do not have the resolve and the resilience to stand and fight them, they are going to continue to press the attack," West said.
As for the threat of a nuclear armed Iran, West believes that if the mullahs who rule the Islamic Republic "get a nuclear devise, they are going to use it" to hasten their apocalyptic vision. And since West does not see how another sanctions regime could possibly dissuade the Islamic Republic from pursuing their quest for nuclear weapons, he sees as the only option a targeted strike on Iran's nuclear installations not too dissimilar from the air raid Israel conducted against Syria's suspected nuclear program in 2007.
"Sooner or later we are going to have to do the exact same thing [in Iran]," West explained. "Either Israel is going to do it and we are going to back their call. Or we are going to have to do it.... You cannot continue to give concessions to a mad man."
The 22nd district contains a large Jewish population, and in West these constituents will find a champion of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Indeed, West sees the survival and continued success of Israel as a harbinger of the survival and continued success of Western civilization.
"If we don't take a stand and honor what we did in 1947 with the creation of the State of Israel," West said, "it shows that we are not committed to the principles we believe in Western Civilization: the rule of law, individual rights and freedoms, the democratic state. We will let autocrats and theocrats overtake that country. And then we are next. Israel is the canary in the coalmine."
As for the Palestinians, West sees them as victims of their own leadership, in particular, and the Arab world, generally.
On the domestic front, West sees the Democratic agenda predicated on a liberal ideology that "needs victims" and for "people to be dependent upon them because that is how they stay in power." Speaking of his own experience growing up in inner city Atlanta, West draws a dichotomy between the conservative vision and the liberal vision for his life.
"The conservative sees me as a young man that if I keep my nose clean, if I stay disciplined, if I get an education, I have the equal opportunity as anyone else to rise and be great in this country," West said. "The liberal on the other side would come down and see me and say, 'Well, you know, you live in a pretty bad neighborhood.' It makes them feel better to see me as a victim. And it makes them feel better to come down and say we'll give you just enough to get by because, you know, we feel bad about you. They see it as equal achievement. They see it as needing affirmative action programs where you lower standards just so you can get it. That is not what I agree with."
It is through this prism that West views the current Democratic proposal on health care.
"It does not take 2,000 pages and it does not take the creation of almost 110 more government agencies to reform our health care system," West said. "It comes back to controlling you and your decision" which is "anathema" to "what this country is about."
What's West solution?
"We have to recommit to the foundational values that made this country great and it starts with the Constitution and understanding our Founding Fathers."
It doesn't take long to discover that West is not a huge fan of President Obama and his agenda. "I think that [President Obama] believes that the government is the end all and be all that can solve all issues and problems," West said. "And we know that in 233 years the public sector didn't build America, the private sector did. Individual Americans did."
As West begins his campaign to unseat Klein, he is getting the support of the national Republican party that he lacked in 2008. A recent press release by the National Republican Congressional Committee lists West as a candidate who is "on the radar."
"If he had the same money as Ron Klein, Allen would win by 20 points," Palm Beach County Republican Chairman Sid Dinerstein told me. "You wouldn't have to have an election.... If you meet him, you vote for him."
That said, Dinerstein still sees West as the underdog and his campaign's success tied, at least in part, to the political mood of the country next November.
"It is going to be a huge Republican year next year," Dinerstein proffered. "The only question is how huge?"
As my interview with West came to a close, I asked West if he wanted to respond to liberal MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann, who recently included West in his Worst Person in the World segment for an article he wrote on the Ft. Hood massacre.
West said his inclusion on the list means that he is "doing a great job."
"I am on their radar screen and they know I am a threat," he said.
After thinking about it a little longer, West added, "maybe one day Keith Olbermann and I will get to meet and I can ask him, you know, why he is such a sucky commentator."
No doubt conservatives would be lining up to watch such a colorful encounter. It would be all the more enthralling if this former Army warrior faced down the liberal MSNBC host from his position as a United States congressman.
Jamie Weinstein is columnist for The North Star National.