Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Wrong Stuff

The feckless Wesley Clark is at it again. Apparently, the Clinton campaign has selected the retired general as point man for attacking John McCain’s military record. During a recent conference featuring former flag officer who have endorsed Hillary Clinton for President, General Clark claimed that Senator McCain--a retired Navy Captain and former POW--has the "wrong military experience" to be Commander-in-Chief. Byron York has a summary of Clark’s comments at NRO’s The Corner:

In the national security business, the question is, do you have — when you have 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'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.

If you look at what Hillary Clinton has done during her time as the First Lady of the United States, her travel to 80 countries, her representing the U.S. abroad, plus her years in the Senate, I think she's the most experienced and capable person in the race, not only for representing am abroad, but for dealing with the tough issues of national security.

Speaking just after Clark, retired Admiral William Owens, former vice chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, said, "I would just say that I agree with Wes on that."

Reading between the lines, Clark's comments are more than an endorsement of Mrs. Clinton; they smack of the elitism and snobbishness that once dominated the upper ranks of the nation's military. General Clark was saying, in effect, that John McCain is unqualified to be Commander-in-Chief because he never reached flag rank or held the theater or unified command jobs that provide "first hand" experience on national security issues.

In other words, Senator McCain never became a "member of the club" populated by active duty and retired generals and admirals like Clark and Owens. The implied message of Clark's remarks underscores the gulf that separates full Colonels (and Navy Captains) from the ranks of generals and admirals. True, a Colonel or Captain is only one grade below a Brigadier General or Rear Admiral (Lower Half), but there's a vast difference in pay, prestige and responsibility.

The number of general or flag officers that may serve on active duty is limited by law; for the Army, that total is 302; the Navy is authorized 216 flag officers, while the Air Force and Marine Corps have 279 and 80 general officers, respectively. To illustrate hard it is to reach the flag ranks, consider this statistic: the Air Force has roughly 30 Colonels for every Brigadier General in its ranks; the other services have similar ratios. Becoming a flag officer puts you in very rarefied air, indeed.

And, some current and former members of the fraternity tend to look down their noses at those who failed to make the cut--particularly those who enter politics and (occasionally) make life difficult for senior military leaders. Needless to say, John McCain wouldn't win any popularity contests among certain segments of the flag officer crowd.

He's been relentless (some would say short-sighted) on certain military issues, including Air Force procurement. We've written extensively about Senator McCain's crusade against the
ill-fated Boeing tanker lease, almost single-handily forcing cancellation of the deal. In the process, McCain rubbed a lot of senior officers the wrong way; his opposition of the tanker lease torpedoed the career of at least one Air Force General who had been nominated for command of U.S. forces in the Pacific. Did we mention that the CINCPAC job has always been a Navy billet, and McCain's own father once held that post?

Truth be told, there's a lot of accumulated bad blood between some senior military officers and Senator McCain. That hardly disqualifies him from becoming Commander-in-Chief; indeed, McCain's detailed knowledge of military issues would make it more difficult for the Pentagon (and Congress) to sneak favored "pork barrel" projects into the DoD budget. Additionally, the Senator is hardly unschooled in strategic issues, with more than 25 years of Congressional service on various defense and foreign affairs committees.

More laughable is the notion that Hillary Clinton's "experience" as First Lady somehow trumps McCain's resume on defense and security issues. Heading a U.S. delegation to some backwater country hardly compares to Mr. McCain's legislative resume and three decades of service as a naval officer. And don't get us started on Barack Obama. Suffice it to say that Mrs. Clinton is a veritable Clausewitz in comparison to the Illinois Senator.

In fairness, there are legitimate concerns about McCain as a prospective Commander-in-Chief. His stand against the nomination of Air Force General Gregory Martin for the CINCPAC post was absolutely shameful. McCain used Martin's tertiary involvement in the tanker lease--the general was never accused of any wrong-doing--to kick an exceptional officer to the curb, and ensure that CINCPAC remain in Navy hands. The episode suggests that a President McCain wouldn't be above service politics, particularly on pet issues and programs.

Still, Senator McCain is far better prepared to lead the nation's armed forces than either of his Democratic rivals. And no amount of political posturing by retired flag officers, past animosity between McCain and senior Pentagon officials--or old-fashioned military elitism--can change that.

We're also reminded of another contrast between Mr. McCain and General Clark. As a POW in North Vietnam, McCain made propaganda statements for the enemy only after a prolonged period of severe torture that pushed him past the breaking point. To this day, McCain views his statements as dishonorable.

By comparison, General Clark gladly (and infamously) posed for photographs wearing the hat of Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic, one of the Balkans most infamous war criminals. The Clinton State Department advised against the meeting, but Clark forged ahead. And, to our knowledge Clark has never apologized for the episode. That speaks volumes about the man who happily touts Hillary Clinton's "experience" to be Commander-in-Chief


F said...


As a graduate of the National War College (charm school for flag rank candidates) I can attest to the "elitism" of many military officers when they get their star. A lot of my classmates went on flag rank (as I did in the civilian service.) What your analysis leaves out is that some get the promotion because they're genuinely qualified, others get it because their ticket gets punched by all the right people and they "look the part." Clark fits into this latter category.

His having made flag rank indicates to me that a pretty face, a boyish smile and a full head of hair goes a long way to trump grit and smarts. I've spent some time with the man, and calling him an empty suit is an insult to the tailor's trade -- he's little more than glitter. And that ignores the fact that he was fired from his biggest military job. That the mainstream media quotes him says more about their mala fides (or stupidity) than about his bona fides. F

SwampWoman said...

I believe the public was completely underwhelmed by ol' Wesley Clark's bona fides when he made his presidential bid in 2004. I don't see anybody being much impressed by him now, either.

F said...


You mean OTHER than Clark himself? F

John Lynch said...

John McCain has more experience in winning the nomination of a major party than Wesley Clark. If Clark was so experienced, how did he lose to John Kerry?