The posts immediately below by Zasloff and Kleiman are correct on all counts. Let’s be clear that Wes Clark honored McCain’s service and said McCain was a hero to him and millions of other service members because of his time as a POW. Unlike the Swift Boat attacks, Clark did not attack McCain’s character or veracity, but only suggested that the conventional wisdom about the relevance of his record was wrong.
On the substance, I’ve been honestly wracking my brains to remember significant influences that McCain has had on foreign and defense policy. His role in supporting the surge in Iraq is well known, and seems to have come as much from the neocons Kristol and Kagan as from any independent judgment. Perhaps his advocacy in 2002 for action against Iraq as the “next front” should be better remembered. He deserves great credit for his role in tamping down and countering nutwing (if sincere) beliefs that many POW-MIAs were still being held by North Vietnam and its allies, and then played an important role in normalization of relations with Vietnam, but these were both intimately bound up with his own Vietnam experience. Recent coverage of his thesis written in a year at the National War College also showed that his time there — the only time in his military career when he was at all exposed to policy — was spent dwelling on his Vietnam experience.
More recently, he played a strong role in opposing a questionable tanker lease that Boeing had cooked up with the Air Force, and in that connection became such a foe of Boeing that he bears some responsibility for the granting of the $35 Billion contract to a European manufacturer fronted by Northrop Grumman — a decision that has now been effectively stopped by a Government Accountability Office review of a protest by Boeing. (The result of this has been to delay the rejuvenation of the tanker fleet by years and probably to cost the government billions of dollars.) McCain did break with many Republicans to more or less support the Clinton administration’s intervention in the Balkans, though he tended to view it through a Cold War lens of opposing Russian influence, which perhaps explains the apparent reversal from his opposition to the peacekeeping role of the Marines in Lebanon during the Reagan administration. On the other hand, when he was still in the House of Representatives, McCain voted against the Goldwater-Nichols reorganization of the Pentagon, that has been crucial to military successes achieved since then. He has supported missile defense in a sort of knee-jerk way, whether the systems work or not.
In other words, from what I can piece together from memory without doing independent research, McCain’s role on Capitol Hill — with the exception of the POW-MIA issue and normalization of relations with Vietnam — has been marginal. He enjoys hob-nobbing with the brass and especially going to international conferences (where his temper may or may not be on display) , but hasn’t produced much in the way of legislation or policy innovation. I can’t remember any special role he played in the rethinking of American national security policy following the demise of the Soviet Union, or again after 9/11. Instead, particular things grab his attention, he makes an issue of them one way or another, and history moves on without him having had a coherent impact. It is perhaps more important to him than he has taken an honorable stand than whether the stand is actually right–in this he may be dangerously similar to the Incumbent.
This is why the McCain camp had to respond so dramatically to Wes Clark’s reasoned discussion of the relevance of the McCain’s record — because there really isn’t much of a policy record for him to stand on. The mis-statements about who’s Sunni and who’s Shia are closer to the real John McCain. His judgment and the depth of his expertise are certainly open to question.
Let’s remember that McCain decided he wanted a political career during his time as Senate Navy Liaison, where, according to the New York Times, he was fondly remembered by Senators such as “monkey business” Gary Hart and soon-to-divorce Bill Cohen for taking them to events where “grounds for divorce were suspended” and for supplying John Tower (later denied confirmation as Secretary of Defense because of his drinking) with alcohol.
I invite readers to provide examples of McCain’s influence on defense and national security — positive as well as negative — that I have missed.
Update: Predictably NBC nightly news played the Wes Clark clip where he repeated Bob Shieffer’s phrase about “riding in a plane and getting shot down” not being a qualification to be president, and played it as a story of questioning McCain’s record or patriotism and whether the Obama campaign is on message. How stupid and lazy can reporting be?