Wes Clark and the risks of hardball

"I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president," retired general Wesley Clark said of John McCain. (Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images)


Did Wesley Clark really say what I thought he said? Did the retired four-star general and ex-NATO commander, in his role as Barack Obama surrogate, actually dare to suggest yesterday, on national TV, that Americans should refrain from genuflecting at the feet of John McCain just because he had been a POW?

He did indeed. The Clark soundbite on CBS: "I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president."

It'll be interesting to see whether the Obama camp puts Clark back on the air in the future. It's clear, on the one hand, that the Obama camp is fully prepared to play hardball, that it does not intend to accept the conventional wisdom (as expressed in most national polls) that McCain's war hero status makes him more qualified to keep us safe. Indeed, the Obama camp seems prepared to question McCain's greatest perceived character asset, in the hopes of fatally undercutting his candidacy.

On the other hand, such a mission requires a certain delicacy. It's arguably fair game to question whether five years in a POW prison automatically confers upon someone the wisdom to guide a nation's foreign policy nearly four decades later. The delicate part is figuring out a way to raise the legitimate issue without seeming to be dismissive of McCain's searing experience. Many viewers yesterday probably sensed only the latter.

Indeed, Team Obama sought this morning to distance itself from its own surrogate. On MSNBC, Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said: "Obviously, those are comments of Wesley Clark, those are not the comments of Barack Obama."

Actually, Clark's remark doesn't seem quite as provocative when viewed in full context. On CBS' Face the Nation yesterday, he was asked to explain what he had meant, earlier this year, when he had called McCain "untested and untried." Clark replied: "I certainly honor his service as prisoner of war. He was a hero to me and to hundreds of 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. That large squadron in the Navy that he commanded wasn't a wartime squadron. He hasn't been there and ordered bombs to fall..." (Here, Clark was referring to his own role as a NATO commander during the '99 bombing of Serbia. It sounded like he was auditioning to be Obama's veep.)

At this point, host Bob Schieffer interrupted, pointing out that Obama has none of those experiences either, "nor has he ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down."

And that's when Clark retorted, "Well, I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president."

Most Democratic voters are probably thrilled that Clark put this out there; Clark, in fact, is touted by many as a great veep choice, on the grounds that he can leverage his superior military credentials (West Point valedictorian, Rhodes Scholar, NATO commander) to legitimately question McCain's record.

And McCain has not been shy this year about trying to parlay his POW experience for maximum political gain; on his campaign website, his "Courageous Service" video begins with POW footage and returns to it repeatedly. Nor was he shy even in 1982, when he was first campaigning for Congress; seeking to fend off the (accurate) charge that he was a carpetbagger newly arrived in his Arizona district, he played the POW card during a debate, telling an opponent: "Listen, pal...I wish I could have the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the First District of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi." 

The question for Obama, however, is whether swing voters will respond favorably to the kind of frontal assault launched yesterday by Clark. The danger for Obama, of course, is that an ill-nuanced critique of McCain's war record (or at least the widely circulated soundbite) might look too much like bare-knuckled old politics, as opposed to the post-partisan new politics that Obama has promised.

On the other hand, if the Obama camp cools on using Wes Clark again, perhaps it might prefer to question McCain's national security qualifications by recycling this 1999 remark about the guy's war record: "It doesn't take a lot of talent to intercept a surface-to-air missile with your own airplane."

The guy who made that remark? John McCain.


Meanwhile, remember the flap last week when McCain strategist Charlie Black was forced to rescind his contention that McCain would benefit politically if the U.S. suffered a pre-election terrorist attack? The remark was widely thought to be in bad taste - but it was nevertheless thought to be true, since, supposedly, most Americans would automatically rally around the Republicans, supposedly the enduring party of national security strength.

As a corrective to that flawed assumption, I recommend today's mega-narrative in The New York Times, which is based on interviews with more than four dozen militarty and intelligence sources. It demonstrates in detail how the Bush administration's obsession with Iraq has made America weaker, more prone to attack from the terrorists who have reconstituted their strength where the war is really located, along the Pakistani border. (Regarding the Bush obsession with Iraq, let us remember that John McCain never questioned the specious rationales for invasion.)

Some choice story tidbits, among many:

"Current and former military and intelligence officials said that the war in Iraq consistently diverted resources and high-level attention from the tribal areas. When American military and intelligence officials requested additional Predator drones to survey the tribal areas, they were told no drones were available because they had been sent to Iraq."

And this:

"With (al) Qaeda operatives now described in intelligence reports as deeply entrenched in the tribal areas and immersed in the civilian population, there is also a view among some military and C.I.A. officials that the opportunity for decisive American action against the militants may have been lost....Leading terrorism experts have warned that it is only a matter of time before a major terrorist attack planned in the mountains of Pakistan is carried out on American soil." 

This material alone would be fertile material for Wes Clark. Assuming that he is allowed to resurface.