Like the daffodils of March — or better perhaps the stinkweeds of July — we have the predictable sight of presidential candidates showing off their military support. Like a proverbial arms race, it usually doesn’t gain much over an opponent, but it’s considered a necessity by campaign advisors as a way of demonstrating that their man (or woman) is a patriot who is capable of being commander-in-chief.
This year, however, at least in the Obama camp, the endorsement in mid-March by general and flag officers before ranks of Old Glory may be a bit revealing, not only for who is endorsing Obama but by who isn’t — by the legions who aren’t there.
Obama’s brass is barely a squad at 10, led by the idiosyncratic General Merrill “Tony” McPeak and filled out by a small, extremely un-wellknown second tier.
Let it be said, first of all, that these displays offer little enlightenment. They effectively amount to the endorsement of a corporate upper middle management type. In most instances these generals and admirals are not exceptional people but pleasant pensioners like any others, with views that do not reflect any great insight into geopolitics or war, let alone character or patriotism.
It’s true that attaining general or flag officer rank is considered great success in the military; even the rank of colonel or Navy captain marks a successful career. And almost by definition those who have attained these ranks are highly educated, usually with at least a Master’s degree and often a Ph. D.
The degrees are impressive, with suitably arcane theses or dissertations. But in reality the expertise and knowledge these degrees represent are just another round of “ticket punching” and with only rare exceptions reflect the deep thinking — or insghtfulness – of true scholarly wisdom.
To the extent the number of endorsements say anything about Obama, it must be noted that his ten general and flag officers represent — according to a rough calculation made by Slate Magazine’s “Explainer” in 2006 — approximately one quarter of one percent of the approximately 4,000 retirees from the military at that level.
And the line up of Obama’s general and flag officer support? Gen. McPeak is a former Chief of Staff of the Air Force and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under the first President Bush and then President Clinton. The General is, shall we say, controversial: He supported Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on homosexuals in the military; reorganized the Air Force in light of the “peace dividend” chimera; and even played Halston by redesigning the Air Force uniform which was, ahem, not exactly a hit with all the fly boys (and girls).
McPeak was for George W. in 2000 before he was against him in 2004, first endorsing Howard Dean before finally supporting — you guessed it — John Kerry. In semi-retirement he has now landed with Obama as campaign co-Chairman, perhaps in the expectation of some cabinet-level appointment, or at least an ambassadorship like those awarded to some of Bill Clinton’s relatively rare military supporters.
McPeak is 72 now, and it is only fair to say that his education and postings have given him some knowledge of geopolitics, especially those of the Middle East. Unfortunately, wht it asn’t given him is an overabundance of judgment.
Articles and interviews indicate that McPeak seems to regard the Middle Eastern stalemate as more Israel’s fault than that of the Arabs. Fair enough, at least to the extent it’s consistent with a sort of left wing trahison des clerc that’s characteristic of the Obama campaign, generally; and specifically with the thinking of Jimmy Carter’s former National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of Obama’s primary foreign policy counselors.
In this, then, especially as a possible Secretary of Defense, McPeak may hold the key to some of the specifics of the candidate’s real thinking on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, hitherto confined to statements of the obvious and anodyne pronouncements of support for Israel.
What’s beyond the pale is the General’s ugly distemper over “Jewish influence.” He’s no anti-Semite, but an interview in a home state Oregon newspaper shows that he has “learned nothing and forgotten everything” as he subscribes to the Mearsheimer/Walt view that Jewish power, specifically electoral influence in New York and Florida (wink-wink), has held up a settlement.
He’s still too young to be a dotard, so we can only assume ignorance or foolishness given overwhelming American support for Israel among Jews and non-Jews alike — even as his irresponsible statements feed bigotry with his hints of dual loyalty.
The rest of Obama’s chiefs are undoubtedly a decent and honorable, even if not extraordinary, lot — not one has likely been within cannon shot of real geopolitical decision-making, and it’s doubtful any have spent much time with Obama.
Among Obama supporters, there are three major generals, three brigadier generals, one full admiral and two rear admirals. As a sample, one achieved peak professional success as a Brigadier in the National Guard; another as Commander of the Joint Warfighting Center, U.S. Joint Forces Command, Joint Training Analysis and Simulation Center; a third as Military Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition and Director, Office of Program Appraisal; and a fourth as Vice Chief of Naval Operations.
As long as we’re playing this game, it should be said that Hillary has about a platoon of support at 30 flag and general officers; McCain a company plus at around 130. And with McCain, it might be noted that he received the endorsements of approximately 100 of these officers last December, when his prospects still looked dim.
The parade pass of military support is largely a charade, part of the expected landscape and genial nonsense of American politics. But if Obama is trying to make a point merely by the existence of his squad, the platoon and company plus of his competitors can only make that point more emphatically.