Does McCain’s Military Experience Translate to Presidency?

Howard Fineman assesses John McCain’s strengths:

We are in the midst of a slow-motion war, and McCain is a warrior. He knows the world, its dangers and wonders; he knows the military, its powers and its limitations. He knows Washington. He has a big campaign organization, and substantive knowledge of most every issue.

Ezra Klein is weary of seeing this conventional wisdom repeated:

The individuals asserting it almost universally agree that Iraq is a quagmire and the war a historic mistake — but they don’t seem to notice that McCain not only supported it, but supported it more enthusiastically than virtually any other prominent figure in the country, and that his full-throated advocacy of a catastrophic invasion should probably be taken into account when evaluating his judgment and knowledge.

Matt Yglesias agrees, adding, “I see no evidence whatsoever that McCain believes the military has any limitations.”

These are interesting points. At first blush, Fineman’s comments would seem unassailable.

  • McCain is nearly 71 years old
  • He’s the son and grandson of 4-star admirals
  • He graduated from the United States Naval Academy
  • He served in Vietnam
  • He spent five years getting tortured in a Vietnamese POW camp
  • He rose to the rank of Captain (0-6)
  • He’s served twenty years in the Senate
  • He’s making his second presidential run

Surely, that more than qualifies him as a worldly man who knows war and Washington.

Does any of that mean he’ll make a great commander-in-chief? Nope. Our greatest wartime presidents, Lincoln and FDR, had much less military experience. Lincoln’s counterpart, Jefferson Davis, had a superb resume and made bad decision after bad decision.

Was McCain’s judgment on the Iraq War wrong? It’s hard to say for sure, really. The war has gone badly but, then again, he wasn’t running it. And he has steadfastly been in favor of a much bigger ground force presence. He wanted Rumsfeld and company gone long before they left. He’s been right on torture. It’s conceivable — and more importantly, unfalsifiable — that things would be much different had McCain been president.

Perhaps Ezra and Matt are right that McCain thinks everything can be solved if only we use enough force. Still, a man who’s been through what he has surely understands as well as anyone the perils of war. Then again, he might be one of those who think the lessons of Vietnam is “don’t tie the military’s hands” and “send more troops.” If so, his experience has not served him well.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, Military Affairs, The Presidency, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Eneils Bailey says:


    Man of great personal integrity…YES
    Great Navy pilot………………YES
    Great Military Hero …………..YES
    A Man who I would wish my children would grow up to be like……………………YES
    A man to call at 3 AM if you had to go fly through the gates of Hell……………..YES
    A Man I could vote for for President….

    Don’t ask me why, but I can’t do it.

  2. USNA says:

    As much as I respect John McCain as an individual and as a fellow alumnus [or at least I totally did during the 2000 campaign and still do somewhat, albeit to a diminished extent … the final straw being the image of him obsequiously hugging geo. dubya shrub at the convention … try as I might, I can’t remove that image from my mind], I could not bring myself to vote for him for President.

    The man has many admirable qualities and achievements … however, I feel constrained to point out: he finished near the bottom of his class and was constantly in trouble during his 4 years at “Canoe U.”; he was shot down; being a prisoner of war -however well and honorably served- and surviving unfathomable torture DOES NOT QUALIFY one to be President … hell, it’s now obvious that being AWOL, owner of a MLB team, and governor of TX, and owing every step of one’s passage thru life to one’s Father and his friends doesn’t qualify one to be President [but then the majority of the people in this Country knew that. To my mind his finest moment since his return from Nam was his characterization of the ayatlooah robertson and imam falwell and their fellow travelers as “agents of intolerance”. Unfortunately, he has seen it as politically expedient to now kiss their ass, just as he flip-flopped on g. dubya shrub.

  3. Anjin-San says:

    McCain’s comments about “strolling” thru Baghdad show that either he has lost touch with reality or is simply a liar.

  4. TheHat says:

    No no no. Lets look at the facts.

    McCain continually sided with the Liberals to obstruct Conservative judges and legislation. Some (my opinion) he did because he hates G.W. Bush and some he did because he is a power hungry asshole. (Pardon the French but its true.) A man who can not support his own party and his own President can’t be trusted to lead that party. He is a traitor and a coward and should switch partys. At least then he’d have an excuse for his actions.

  5. USNA says:

    Comment in violation of site policies deleted.