Monday, June 30, 2008

Military Service as an Issue in Presidential Politics

General Wesley Clark inadvertently touched off our indignation-du-jour yesterday by commenting that Senator John McCain's lack of "executive responsibility" — commanding at the broad strategic level rather than at the immediate tactical level — means that McCain's military experience, as much as it proves his courage, dedication, patriotism, and character, does not by itself qualify him for the ultimate "executive responsibility" of being President of the United States with two full-blown shooting wars. General Clark made the point awkwardly and undiplomatically, and in particular sounded somewhat self-serving in pointing out that he, too, had been wounded in battle, but that he had also held a position of strategic command responsibility. I've written my own remarks to more clearly make the point I believe General Clark ought to be making.

Military experience alone is not the deciding factor of who will make the best President of the United States. If it were, we would now be drawing to the close of the first term of President Wesley Clark — he clearly had the strongest military qualifications of any candidate from either party, beating President Bush hands-down. But Wesley Clark was not elected in 2004; he was not even an also-ran in his own party's nomination process. Why is that, if military experience is so important? It's because there are other aspects to the Presidency where Wes Clark had insufficient credentials. He didn't have the political experience to mount an effective national campaign, to pull himself out of the background noise up to the front of the pack, just for one.

But let's look at this year's candidates. John McCain served in the military with distinction and honor. He proved beyond a shadow of a doubt his personal courage in a life-or-death situation, his dedication to his fellow prisoners of war, his patriotic devotion to our country, and his strength of character in refusing special treatment. He is an American hero. But, to put it in more familiar terms, John McCain has not yet passed the "Commander-in-Chief test," merely because he was a war hero. Gen. Douglas McArthur was a hero in World War II, but he would've made a terrible Commander-in-Chief. The President needs to have a vision, not only of where we should be headed as a nation, but of how we get there. The President needs to have the judgment to balance competing demands for resources to pursue our national goals. The President needs to be nimble in using all the modes of American power in the world, not just our military might. By that score, Senator McCain's record is quite mixed. He is boxed in by his party's blinkered view that the military must remain at the forefront of the so-called War on Terror. He is deluded into believing that it is possible — never mind desirable — for the United States to maintain a significant military presence in Iraq indefinitely. He is constrained by the demands of personal loyalty to a corrupt President who has spent eight years undermining the Constitution of the United States, and thus cannot even begin to undo the damage caused by legitimizing torture, discarding the Fourth Amendment, discarding the principle of habeas corpus, politicizing the Justice Department, keeping our gasoline prices high by refusing to repeal the "every bit as evil as it sounds" Enron Loophole. McCain has contorted himself on so many issues to curry favor with the shrinking minority of us who believe that George W. Bush has even tried to do a good job.

Then there's Senator Barack Obama. He can't look to his military service to prove his patriotism. (Perhaps worse even than that, he hasn't had a flag pin super-glued to every piece of clothing he owns.) He just gave a major speech about the role of patriotism in his life and how it would inform his view of the office he seeks. Barack Obama loves his country, and will commit every fiber of his being to "preserve, protect and defend" our freedom "against all enemies, foreign and domestic." Then there is the issue of judgment. Unlike John McCain, Barack Obama stood up in 2002 against the authorization for George Bush to start a war against Iraq. Obama saw and said publicly that it would be a mistake, which is exactly what it has been from Day One. Obama also understands the point that we will never be made safe from terrorism by military power alone. We need diplomacy, law enforcement, intelligence, and yes, public relations. If nineteen guys with a budget of half a million dollars can bring our nation to a complete halt, even for a moment, then we have to rethink the whole notion of "asymmetric warfare." Al Qaeda has no country. You bomb Afghanistan, they move to Pakistan. If you chase them out of there, they'll move again, and again and again and again. We need to dry up their financing. We need to get intel on their whereabouts and their plans, and we can't count on wiretaps alone. We need to get other governments and the people on the streets to be willing to turn against al Qaeda and rat them out, and that's awfully hard to do when we're so busy playing "Ugly American on steroids" in the heart of the Middle East.

I believe that Barack Obama's life experience, including the mere act of living abroad as well community organizing in Chicago and teaching Constitutional law and speaking out against the Iraq War, has better prepared him to make the difficult judgment calls that will be required of our next Commander-in-Chief.

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