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.”
Clark had actually been reciting this basic line for months, but to muted media reaction, possibly because he used to be a Hillary Clinton booster and she furnished reporters with enough gaffes and shockers to last the entire election cycle. But back in early March, Clark told Josh Gerstein of New York Sun:
You know, in the national security business, the question is, do you have — when you’ve served in uniform — do you really have the relevant experience for making the decisions at the top that have to be made? Everybody admires John McCain ‘s service as a fighter pilot, his courage as a prisoner of war. There’s no issue there. He was — he’s a great man and an honorable man. But having served as a fighter pilot — and I know my experience as a company commander in Vietnam — that doesn’t prepare you to be commander-in-chief in terms of dealing with the national strategic issues that are involved. It may give you a feeling for what the troops are going through in the process, but it doesn’t give you the experience first hand of the national strategic issues.
Clark then followed this up with the laughable assertion that Clinton, who as First Lady had visited 80 countries, possessed the relevant experience to conduct foreign policy, presumably because, though out of uniform, she had made a whole host of decisions “from the top.” (Like bringing peace to Northern Ireland, or singlehandedly disappearing Chetnik snipers in Bosnia, perhaps?)
It’s easy to see how someone capable of making such a tenderheaded judgment would later come off as petty and tone-deaf to the Sunday morning talk show set. Clark is right that being shot down and taken prisoner are not events equal to conducting statecraft and diplomacy — though he might be good enough to point out where John McCain has made that explicit claim for himself. Again, the general-turned-pundit is his own best evidence of how martial know-how isn’t fungible with political savvy: Clark’s defeat of the armies of Slobodan Milosevic must be held apart from the dastardly and stupid decision he made in 1994 to pose for a smiling, hat-swapping photograph with the Serbian war criminal Ratko Mladic.
Yet, as he implies with respect to Obama, who’s “running on his other strengths,” a candidate’s biography is instructive for taking the full measure of the man who would be president. No one would suggest Obama’s community organizing ability informs his ability to organize a cabinet, let alone a peace summit, but it helps to know how he bore responsibility when the stakes were smaller.
What Clark self-destructively failed to realize, however, is that it isn’t McCain’s soldiering during the Vietnam War that impresses people so much as his behavior outside of combat. What is unassailable in his curriculum vitae cannot be easily defined down or dismissed. His displays of stoicism and fortitude while being held captive by a pitiless enemy and tortured daily tell on his character and judgment – and even his communication skills — in a way that makes the outlying war seem almost incidental.
McCain’s harshest critics are bound by conscience to admit the fact. Reason editor Matt Welch, no fan of wars of choice, has written what is by several accounts the most trenchant takedown of the Arizona senator and his unthinking flatterers in the media, The Myth of the Maverick. Yet it is in Welch’s article “Be Afraid of President McCain” that we find the following:
So after being shot out of the sky during a risky raid over Hanoi in 1967, then pummeled by a mob of local Vietnamese and detained at the notorious prison nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton, McCain comported himself heroically despite two broken arms, a mangled knee, and innards wracked by dysentery and other maladies. Every morning for two years a guard the prisoners called The Prick would demand that McCain bow to him. Every morning McCain would refuse, then brace for his beating. Herded into a made-for-propaganda Christmas Eve service in the prison yard, McCain punctured the enforced silence with repeated shouts of “Fuck you!” while raising his middle finger to the camera. Beat senseless for days on end for refusing to divulge information or accept early release (which would have given the North Vietnamese a propaganda victory and violated the Navy’s honor code), he would reveal only the names of every player he could remember from the Green Bay Packers. “Resisting, being uncooperative and a general pain in the ass,” he wrote, “proved, as it had in the past, to be a morale booster for me.”
I think I’m sophisticated enough to marvel at this kind of superhuman bravery and still appreciate that those same attributes — “being uncooperative and a general pain the ass” — might do more harm than good in an occupant of the White House.