There are two walls of separation that the United States holds dear. The first is that between church and state, and the second is that between civilian control of the military and the military execution of war policy, which carries with it the Clausewitzian understanding that war is simply the continuation of politics by other means. A corollary of this guiding principle is that competence or genius as a solider do not predetermine those same qualities as a commander-in-chief.
Despite the fact that our own history abounds with presidents who were once war heroes, there are plenty of pertinent examples that vindicate the saneness of this view. The Civil War might not have been won by the Union had Lincoln not removed the hapless and megalomaniacal general-in-chief George McClellan, who at one point made the boast to his wife, which no general should ever be allowed to make, that all that was stopping him from becoming a dictator was his own “self-denial.”
As scandalous as Truman’s firing of Douglas MacArthur was at the close of the Korean War, few historians would now argue that the cease-fire that MacArthur stubbornly and unconstitutionally refused to allow prevented the disastrous spread of fighting into China.
And of course, more recently, George W. Bush’s replacement of Gen. George Casey with Gen. David Petraeus is widely credited with the tremendous reduction of violence and chaos in Iraq, a reduction that has surprised many members of the military establishment who would surely not have made the same staffing decision.
So Wesley Clark’s comments two weeks ago that John McCain’s experiences as a Navy fighter pilot and POW were not recommendations for his presidency should not have been, on the surface, controversial. Clark was speaking on Face the Nation in his capacity as an Obama campaigner, and however politically motivated or sneeringly phrased his remarks were, his very presence on that program was ample proof of his own proposition. Didn’t Clark himself try in 2004 to pass off his tenure as Supreme Allied Commander of NATO as the only real measure of his fitness for high office? And didn’t he discover the hard way that epaulets don’t translate so effortlessly into votes? Indeed, as we saw that same year with John Kerry, a presidential candidate who bolsters his candidacy with his past military credentials can and should be expected to have those credentials scrutinized or dismissed as insufficient for civilian leadership.
I don’t want to be accused of mischaracterizing the tenor or meaning of what Clark said about McCain on Face the Nation, so here is the relevant extract:
He has been a voice on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and he has traveled all over the world. But he hasn’t held executive responsibility. That large squadron in the Air — in the Navy that he commanded, it wasn’t a wartime squadron. He hasn’t been there and ordered the bombs to fall. He hasn’t seen what it’s like when diplomats come in and say, “I don’t know whether we’re going to be able to get this point through or not. Do you want to take the risk? What about your reputation? How do we handle it publicly?” He hasn’t made those calls, Bob.
Clark was then told by host Bob Scheiffer, “[Sen.] Barack Obama has not had any of those experiences either, nor has he ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down,” to which he gave the now infamous reply: “Well, I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president… But Barack is not — he is not running on the fact that he has made these national security pronouncements. He’s running on his other strengths. He’s running on the strengths of character, on the strengths of his communication skills, on the strengths of his judgment.”