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Clark Was Right on McCain, But Now We're Talking About the Wrong Issue

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"Well, I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president." Those are the words retired general Wesley Clark spoke about John McCain on CBS's Face the Nation that have caused an uproar in the latest instance of "gotcha" politics.

While I agree with Clark's premise, I wish the discussion was about McCain's alleged experience advantage over Barack Obama. The flap over Clark's statements could have provided a springboard for Obama to dispel some myths on this issue.

As for Clark's statement, which part of it is untrue? McCain's military service, his survival of his captivity, and his ability to bounce back from the horrors he faced to become a U.S. senator certainly inspires a lot of adjectives: brave, resilient, selfless, strong, principled, and patriotic, just to name a few. But go back and read Clark's statement. He simply said that McCain's fate in Vietnam was not a qualification to be president. Isn't that true? McCain's war experiences would not, in and of themselves, mean he is ready to practice law, do surgery, or even remove dangerous mold from a house. It's about skill sets, and the act of having your plane shot down is not relevant to the skills of being an executive.

If anyone had bothered to read the context of Clark's statement (I know, I know, I'm asking way too much now ...), prior to making the claim that rocked the punditry world (at least for a news cycle or two), the retired general said:

"In the matters of national security policy making, it's a matter of understanding risk. It's a matter of gauging your opponents and it's a matter of being held accountable. John McCain's never done any of that in his official positions. I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war. He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands and millions of others in the armed forces, as a prisoner of war. 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."

Quite clearly, Clark wasn't impugning McCain's patriotism or war record. Quite the contrary. Instead, Clark was simply making the factual point that McCain's lifetime of service, while commendable, did not involve the specific skills and experiences that are involved in holding the highest executive office in the country.

Obama's response was to immediately defend McCain's patriotism (as well as his own), implicitly rejecting Clark's statements (he never used his name). In doing so, Obama missed a real opportunity to comment on an issue that stands as one of his largest impediments to winning the White House in November: The perceived advantage in "experience" that McCain holds over Obama.

On nearly every issue in which voters have expressed interest (the economy, health care, the environment, etc.), polls seem to indicate that Americans trust Obama more than McCain. The one area in which McCain holds an advantage is on national security. There is a perception, one the mainstream media is responsible for reinforcing, that when it comes to security, McCain has extensive experience, while Obama is a novice.

I believe this premise is fatally flawed.

First, experience isn't a good thing if it's bad experience. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had oodles of experience in 2002, but that didn't stop them from making awful decisions and being wrong on virtually every prediction on what would happen in Iraq. If experience means four more years of Bush administration policy, I would say experience is vastly overrated.

Second, I believe there is a strong case to be made that Obama has a superior record on key national defense issues ("good" experience, you might say).

My argument is that, as Clark points out, the judgment of a chief executive is paramount, with a "buck stops here" nature to these decisions and a real need to make sound judgments in the face of difficult facts. And when you look at the single most important national security decision of the last decade, history has shown Obama's judgment to have been vastly superior to McCain's.

I am, of course, talking about Iraq.

On October 2, 2002, nine days before the U.S. senate voted on a resolution authorizing the president to use military action in Iraq, the nation was marching steadily forward toward a war. The mainstream media was doing nothing to challenge the administration's claims about Iraq, and the political climate was one of fear, where politicians perceived a real career risk in opposing the president (only 21 senators had the nerve to vote against the resolution). But on that date, Obama, then a state senator in Illinois, gave a speech against military intervention in Iraq.

The speech's theme and refrain was: "I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars." Obama said early in the address:

"What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne."

We may take this statement as a given now, but in 2002, it was not an accepted mainstream position.

Obama then went on to say:

"Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history. I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda."

Remember, this is 2002, and Obama's predictions came true, as if he had a crystal ball in front of him. That is the type of judgment Obama showed, at a time when expressing this opinion was not only challenging what was being reported by the mainstream media, but was also viewed by many politicians (including more than 20 Democrats in the U.S. senate) as being politically dangerous.

And in October 2002, what did McCain do? He voted for the war resolution. He supported the president for the early years of the war. Sure, he enjoys boasting about his support for the surge and claims that it is the right strategy, but that doesn't change the fact that when American lives were on the line in October 2002, McCain made the wrong call. And, in light of the recently released report by the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO), indicating that the surge is not going as well as McCain and Bush would have you believe, and the recent congressional testimony by generals, press release by Republican Senator Richard Lugar and statements by former secretary of state Colin Powell on the dire state of the military because of the debacle in Iraq, McCain's current stance on the war should lead many Americans to conclude that his judgment was wrong when it counted most.

Or, to put it in more campaign-friendly, sound-bite ready terms: The Iraq war has turned out to be the one of the worst foreign policy decisions made by the United States in the last 100 years, and McCain supported it from the beginning (and continues to support it now). Meanwhile, Obama has shown good judgment by consistently opposing the war in Iraq, regardless of political pressures.

So I would argue that on national security, based on the actual decisions made by the candidates, Obama has shown better judgment as a leader, regardless of any perceived gap in experience. And that should have been the theme of Obama's response to the uproar over Clark's remarks.

It's time to put the myth to rest, once and for all, that McCain's military duty or senate service has provided him with some kind of necessity to be commander-in-chief that Obama lacks. And the key to making that distinction is pointing to what the two men did in 2002. At a key moment in our history, Obama got it right, and McCain got it wrong. We are paying a dear price for McCain's mistake now. We can't afford to give him four years to make things even worse.