Would Kerry's Military Background Be Helpful in the Presidency?

Roundup: Media's Take

Michael R. Gordon, in the NYT (Feb. 16, 2004):

... If [John Kerry] becomes president, his own military record and his familiarity with military culture will enhance his standing and facilitate his relations with the military, from four-star officers to the lowliest recruit.

Because Bill Clinton lacked that insight and credentials, some former Clinton administration officials say, he found it difficult to order the military into Bosnia and make other decisions that were unpopular at the Pentagon. He had to coax the military along. A President Kerry, on the other hand, could be expected have more confidence in dealing with military leaders and military issues and in exercising civilian control of important decisions.

A more central question, however, is whether it is necessary to be in the military and to be shot at in order to be a good president. Eliot A. Cohen, a military historian and the author of"Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime," a book that makes a strong case for assertive civilian control in wartime, says there are some impressive counterexamples.

"Look at the Civil War," Mr. Cohen told me."Jefferson Davis was a West Point graduate, a colonel and a combat veteran, and he was a lousy commander in chief. Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer who had served one month in the militia during a small Indian war, and he was a superb commander in chief. Franklin Roosevelt was a great commander in chief and had no military service. The qualities you look for in a commander in chief do not necessarily correlate with prior military service."

Lawrence J. Korb, a former official in the Reagan Pentagon and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank, differs."Operational experience is a plus for someone to be commander in chief," he says."Eisenhower was able to stand up to the military and keep the defense budget from exploding."

The issue has somewhat different implications for President Bush than Senator Kerry. Politically, the focus on Mr. Bush's service in the Texas Air Guard is not to the president's advantage, though he has virtually invited scrutiny by reveling in his role as a former military man, wearing flight jackets and, in a famous episode he would possibly now like to forget, flying in a warplane to the carrier Abraham Lincoln in May to proclaim that major combat operations in Iraq were over. One could not have asked for a more vivid example of how prior service in the armed forces does not necessarily lead to prescient judgments on military affairs.

George W. Bush's own military record during Vietnam also brings up the issue of shared sacrifice as the casualties from Iraq continue to add up on his presidential watch. But Mr. Bush did serve honorably in the military and found a pursuit that required discipline and entailed risk: flying a fighter jet.

My own view is that military experience, like experience in business or government, can be useful preparation for a political leader but should be considered neither a requirement nor a bellwether. In fact, because of the end of conscription and the establishment of the all-volunteer force, it may become an increasingly rare item on politicians' resumes.

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