Wes Clark on John McCain

No, McCain’s military experience doesn’t prepare him to be Commander-in-Chief.
And no, it’s not “swiftboating” to point that out.

Jonathan Zasloff (see post just below) beat me to it: it’s outrageous to conflate Wesley Clark’s reasoned critique of the notion that John McCain’s Navy service makes him an expert on national security policy with attacks on McCain’s service record itself. There’s no excuse for swift-boating, or for picking up the crap thrown at McCain by the operators of the POW/MIA racket. But Clark was right, and Schieffer’s tone of incredulity was completely unjustified: nothing in McCain’s service prepared him for the responsibilities of the Commander-in-Chief.

But you don’t have to take my word for it, or Jonathan’s, or even Wesley Clark’s. You can take it from McCain’s superiors in the Navy: despite his ancestry (the son and grandson of four-star admirals) and his record as a POW, they never promoted him to admiral.

Update The Obama campaign wimps out. A mistake, I think. Not only was Clark right on the merits, but Obama’s surrogates ought to know that the campaign will have their backs unless they say something outrageous.

Second update Pejman Yousefzadeh comes through with level of civility, intelligence, and intellectual integrity we’ve come to expect from him. He says that since I never served in the military, I have no standing to point out that John McCain’s superiors in the Navy didn’t think he was fit to command a Carrier Battle Group, let alone to be Commander-in-Chief. (He also suggests that I am deranged, but this is automatic: in RedStateWorld, anyone who opposes Bush or McCain must necessarily suffer from mental illness.)

As every sane person acknowledges (that leaves out the POW/MIA racketeers and the people fooled by them or so hostile to McCain as to be willing to retail their ridiculous charges) McCain served honorably in the Navy, and acted heroically as a POW. Let me say that once again, because Yousefzadeh is somewhat hard of listening: McCAIN’S HONORABLE SERVICE AND COURAGE ARE NOT IN DISPUTE.

What is in dispute is McCain’s claim that entrusting him with the Presidency would be safe because his service record makes him an expert in national security affairs, while entrusting Barack Obama with the Presidency would be risky because Obama lacks the relevant experience. That claim is false, as Gen. Clark pointed out; never having had substantial command experience in wartime, Sen. McCain did not in fact have to make decisions resembling those a President must make.

Moreover, McCain’s superiors decided not to give him the responsibilities that might have prepared him for the Presidency when they declined to promote him to rear admiral. They did so despite his heroism and distinguished ancestry. It’s no disgrace not to achieve flag rank, and I never suggested that it was. But it does reflect an expert judgment about his capacity for high-level decision-making, a judgment consistent with his (very low) class standing at Annapolis and with the quality of his thought as expressed in his speeches.

If you want to say that McCain’s service proved his physical courage and devotion to country, and that Barack Obama has not been in a position to deliver equivalent proof, you’ll get no argument from me. (That’s parallel to the Kerry-v.-Bush claims, the Silver Star holder vs. the AWoL reservist, except that Obama’s record is a zero and not a negative number.)

But then no one but the nuts has questioned McCain’s physical courage or devotion to country. What’s in question is his competence, and in particular his claim that he is better prepared than his opponent to be President.

If Pejman Yousefzadeh has the courage to defend his opinions, I’d be happy to confront him on Bloggingheads.TV. Don’t hold your breath; he’s much better at dishing out random personal insults than he is at argument, and I suspect he has just enough self-knowledge to understand that. But if he lacks that self-knowledge, I look forward to wiping up the floor with him.

Third update Since Pejman Yousefzadeh remains confused, and won’t debate on Bloggingheads where I could enlighten him in real time, let me respond just once more.

Pejman attacks Wes Clark for inconstency: Clark he says, trumpted John Kerry’s service in 2004, but dismisses John McCain’s today. Nonsense.

1. In 2004, John Kerry faced attacks on his patriotism, both for having opposed the War in Vietnam and for having said, correctly, that the invasion and occupation of Iraq constituted “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Against that, his record of heroic service should have constituted some protection, though it didn’t, in part because the Republicans lied about Kerry’s service and mocked his wounds.

2. In 2004, John Kerry confronted a Republican ticket consisting of two men each of whom had supported the War in Vietnam but had arranged not to get in harm’s way in the course of that war. Kerry’s own record of having volunteered for Vietnam duty stood in honorable contrast to that. Insofar as physical courage is a proxy for moral courage (which, alas, it mostly isn’t) Kerry had, and Bush/Cheney hadn’t, demonstrated that virtue.

3. In 2004, Kerry’s opponents thought that war was groovy. Kerry, having been there, thought otherwise. That, too, was a legitimate issue.

That was the context in which Clark cited Kerry’s service as a reason for supporting him. He didn’t claim that Kerry’s service made Kerry a national security expert in the sense that Clark’s own service made Clark a national security expert. He claimed that Kerry had shown patriotism, had shown courage, and had learned that war is terrible and therefore not to be eager to engage in it.

Now fast-forward to 2008. No one questions John McCain’s patriotism (except where the interest of the country conflicts with the interests of his friends’ lobbying clients) or his physical courage. Clark has repeatedly and fully acknowledged McCain’s heroism in the POW camp. He did so in the very interview McCain is whining about, saying that McCain “had been a hero” to Clark himself and to millions of others.

McCain’s claim is that he is, and Obama isn’t ready to be President, because he’s an expert in national security. Clark challenged that, and Schieffer expressed incredulity: given McCain’s military record, how could one call him “untested and untried” in national security affairs? Clark responded that McCain had never had the sort of command experience that would have prepared him for war-and-peace decision-making in the White House.

Clark didn’t note that McCain, as a Congressman, had voted the Navy’s interest rather than the national interest in opposing the Goldwater-Nichols reforms, (as one of only 27 House members to vote against the bill), demonstrating either (1) service parochialism or (2) deficient knowledge of the relationship between bureaucratic structure and performance or (3) mere subservience to the Reagan Administration. McCain, whose lack of any sense of irony makes him one of the great comic characters in public life, has called for “a civilian follow-up to the Goldwater-Nichols Act” to make sure the Pentagon and the State Department work together, without ever mentioning his opposition to Goldwater-Nichols itself.

So Clark has been consistent: McCain’s service was entirely creditable and honorable, and proves about him the same good things that Kerry’s service proved about Kerry (and that Pejman’s friends more or less successfully lied out of existence in the “Swift Boat” campaign). However, McCain’s service does not prove the claim that he is qualified to be Commaner-in-Chief while his opponent isn’t, and neither does McCain’s lackluster national security record in Congress.

All of the contemporaneous accounts make it clear that McCain left the Navy in part because his prospects of making flag rank were dim. Of course that doesn’t demonstrate anything bad about McCain’s character; most captains don’t make rear admiral. It does give you some information about how McCain’s superiors evaluated his capacity for large-scale command responsibility.

To say so does nothing to denigrate his courage or his honor. But it’s fully consistent with both his havin barely scraped by at Annapolis and the quality of his thought as expressed in his campaign: unlike his opponent, he is not an intellectual giant.

Footnote For an example of McCain’s huge expertise in national security affairs, consider his saying, back in April, that he wouldn’t shift troops from Iraq to Afghanistan unless Gen. Petraeus recommended it. That was just days after Petraeus himself had ducked the question in a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee (McCain, R-AZ, ranking minority member) by pointing out that he was in charge of Iraq, and the allocation of forces betwen Iraq and Afghanistan is a decision made above his pay-grade.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com