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McCain Raises Obama's Lack of Service

By Brendan Nyhan

ABC's Jake Tapper reports that John McCain is questioning Barack Obama's judgment because he didn't serve in the military:

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Monday hit Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, not for only being, in his view, wrong on the surge of troops in Iraq, but also for not having served in the military. Arguing that he, unlike Obama, doesn't "need any on-the-job training," McCain said, per ABC News' Jen Duck, that "I also agree with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who said it would be very dangerous...to do what Senator Obama has advocated."

Added the former Navy flier and Vietnam P.O.W.: "I hope we'll pay attention to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Particularly someone that has no military experience whatsoever."

As Tapper notes, McCain previously responded to Obama's criticism of his position on a GI bill by saying he "will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did." McCain also once jabbed incorrectly at Obama for using the spelling "flack jacket" rather than "flak jacket."

Practically speaking, these comments are silly. McCain's heroic service as a Vietnam War fighter pilot and POW is not relevant to being commander-in-chief. As Wesley Clark said somewhat tactlessly, "I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president."

But what's really objectionable is the anti-democratic idea that candidates have to serve in the military to serve as president and command American troops. Bill Clinton was handicapped throughout his presidency by this perception, which weakened his leverage in trying to get the military to go after Osama bin Laden. Some liberal pundits and bloggers have bought into a similar notion by describing pro-war conservatives who didn't serve in the military as "chickenhawks," which suggests that only veterans can argue for war.

A related problem is the growing politicization of the military itself, which has an increasingly conservative tilt, especially among officers. Since 9/11, President Bush has used military imagery for partisan purposes and repeatedly attacked Democrats during speeches at military bases. Rather than decrying these tactics, Democrats like John Kerry have fetishized their support from retired officers and hyped any criticism of President Bush by active-duty officers.

It's time to restore balance in this relationship. The presidency is a civilian institution that controls the military, not the other way around.

Brendan blogs regularly at Brendan-Nyhan.com