Sen. John McCain and his campaign surrogates have been making a lot of his military experience lately, hoping to convince Americans that one man's military record versus another's lack of one should determine who would be the best president.
The idea the McCain campaign is pushing is that his service in the Navy and his heroic behavior as a prisoner of war especially qualify him for the Oval Office and, more narrowly, to be commander in chief. But it doesn't. I believe McCain is up to the requirements of the office, but his military service by itself no more qualifies him than John Kerry's service or mine or anyone else's. Nor is the opposite true: that Barack Obama's lack of military service makes him less worthy of being president and commander in chief.
I should make it clear that I'm supporting Obama in this election. The more McCain's supporters talk about his warrior nature, the more I worry about what he might do as president. In America, we want our warriors serving in the military, not serving as the civilian leader.
Instead of merely trumpeting McCain's service and using his former POW status as an all-purpose defense against criticism, his campaign could be telling voters what it means to bring military experience into public service. Because it's what McCain did after the Vietnam War, what he learned from those years and how he applied it, that makes him fit to be president. What would that campaign highlight? Here are some possibilities:
America has never had a president who spent time in any prison, let alone a prison where physical abuse and humiliation were the rule. McCain has carried that experience into the public debates about torture. He has spoken about how his treatment taught him what it feels like to be powerless and under the control of others who determined how much and when he ate, how much and where he slept, and whether he would live or die. He knows that to allow American personnel to torture prisoners is wrong, and that it puts our own military personnel at risk of the same treatment.
In McCain, America would get a president whose convictions about the cost of war allowed him to take risks in pursuit of diplomacy and bipartisan foreign policy. In the early 1990s, he was one of the leaders in the effort to get a peace agreement in Cambodia and to resolve the issue of POWs and MIAs in Southeast Asia.
The direct and indirect results, in Cambodia, have been that hundreds of thousands of refugees left camps in Thailand to return home, the Khmer Rouge lost power and democratic elections have been held there several times. In Vietnam, diplomacy established a road map to normalization that enabled us to end Trading With the Enemy Act restrictions, send a former American POW back to Vietnam as our first ambassador in 25 years, enact a bilateral trade agreement and achieve a great foreign policy success at the site of our worst foreign policy mistake.
All of which shows that McCain learned that real men should sometimes seek a diplomatic solution before our servicemen and women are asked to go in harm's way. He knows the best war is the one we never have to fight because we have been wise enough, persistent enough and brave enough to be patient.
After his return from Vietnam and before he was elected to Congress, Capt. John McCain was a Navy liaison to Capitol Hill. In the Senate, he has served for 20 years on the Armed Services Committee, where he has demonstrated a willingness to stand up to defense contractors who are (perhaps understandably) more concerned with winning a contract than with what our soldiers, sailors, Marines and Air Force and Coast Guard personnel actually need. So, America would get a president who knows how Washington works, why it doesn't and what must be done to make certain our servicemen and women get the best gear and the right kind of support.
Lastly, McCain is a member of a distinguished military family. Accordingly, he knows that responsibility cannot be delegated. He'll give the military credit if it succeeds, and will shoulder the burden of failure if it does not.
John McCain's military service was exemplary. His survival was heroic. His sense of duty is worthy of emulation. But if that was all there was to the man, it wouldn't be enough to trust him with the power of the presidency.