Tuesday, October 21, 2008

McCain, the warrior?

A Jotman reader commented on my recent Commander-in-Chief post,
. . . it's a scary world right now, with some very scary people trying to kill any Americans they can. Personally, I still have flashbacks to 9/11. I'm not surprised that a lot of us are looking for a warrior to lead us instead of a skilled administrator.
As I have discussed previously, when asked, Americans have said that they consider McCain, not Obama, to possess superior military leadership qualities. This polling trend persists. According to an Oct. 20 CBS News-NY Times poll: "The Republican nominee is still seen as more likely to be an effective commander-in-chief: 48 percent say McCain is 'very likely' to be effective, while 27 percent say the same of Obama."

(As I blogged before, this McCain advantage points the way towards the kind of "October Surprise" that is most likely to win McCain the presidency: war. Another possibility that could assist McCain would be the emergence of a terrorist figure such as Bin Laden, or a major terrorist attack on American interests. The Boston Globe notes, "McCain could benefit from anything that puts bin Laden back in the news.")

Fundamentally, I think Americans are dead wrong if they think McCain would make a superior military leader to Obama. We all know that McCain is a warrior, but what evidence do we have that he is an especially gifted commander? Very little.

On the other hand, the tactical skills Obama has demonstrated during the campaign against the Clintons, and his campaign to date against McCain, plus Obama's prescient decision not to support the invasion of Iraq, are positive indications that Obama is a gifted strategic thinker -- the kind that makes for an effective military leader.

When it comes to military leadership, temperament counts for a lot. That is one area where Obama clearly shines. How important is having an appropriate temperament when it comes to selecting a Commander in Chief? In The Art of War the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu described the defects of temperament which a commander must avoid:
There are five dangerous faults which may affect a general:
(1) Recklessness, which leads to destruction;
(2) cowardice, which leads to capture;
(3) a hasty temper, which can be provoked by insults;
(4) a delicacy of honor which is sensitive to shame;
(5) over-solicitude for his men, which exposes him to worry and trouble.
From West Point to Sandhurst Art of War remains the gold standard of texts concerning military strategy. Let's go through the five character defects identified by Sun Tzu one-by-one, asking ourselves to what extent they may pertain to John McCain:

1) Recklessness? McCain's choice of Palin qualifies McCain as "reckless" by any definition. As did his strange decision to suddenly suspend his campaign at the onset of the financial crisis. Check.
2) Cowardice? Although his brand of "bravery" is impossible to distinguish from sheer recklessness, and McCain's reluctance to look Obama in the eye during the debates hardly paints a profile of courage, I do not believe McCain to be a coward. Cross this one off.
3) Hot temper? This is a widely accepted observation about McCain's personality. Check.
4) Delicacy of honor? In speeches McCain comes across as utterly obsessed about the question of personal honor; his obsession with national honor seems to explain his motivation to keep American troops in Iraq. Check.
5) Given his reputation as an independent Maverick, McCain does not appear to have this problem. Cross this one off.

Senator John McCain is clearly predisposed to exhibit fully 3/5 (60%) of the most serious temperamental defects in a military leader identified by Sun Tzu. By way of contrast, Obama does not appear to suffer from as many -- if any at all -- of these defects.

The average American probably does not know what makes a good Commander in Chief (after all, these are the people who reelected George W. Bush in 2004). But one American who ought to have an educated opinion on the matter comes to mind. During his interview with NBC News Sunday, General Colin Powell said of Obama:
He speaks authoritatively. He speaks with great insight into the challenges we're facing of a military and political and economic nature. And he is surrounding himself, I'm confident, with people who'll be able to give him the expertise that he, at the moment, does not have. And so I have watched an individual who has intellectual vigor and who dives deeply into issues and approaches issues with a very, very steady hand. And so I'm confident that he will be ready to take on these challenges on January 21st.
Powell said he thought that Obama "has met the standard of being a successful president, being an exceptional president."
Picture: George Washington; calligraphy, "Sun Tzu's Art of War."


  1. A minor comment - you have a grammatical error in one of your sentences:

    2) Cowardice? Although his brand of "bravery" is impossible to distinguish from sheer recklessness, and McCain's reluctance to look Obama in the eye during the debates hardly paints a profile of courage, I do NOT think McCain is NOT a coward. Cross this one off.

    I have capitalized the words that form a double negative. I believe you intend to say that you do not believe McCain to be a coward.

    yours sincerely,

  2. J, to clarify: I do not believe McCain to be a coward. Thanks.

  3. The is a great article in Rolling Stone called McCain: The Make Believe Maverick - Record of recklessness and lies. Excellent article depicting how McCain is definitely not a warrior hero they make him out to be.

    I normally respect our veterans who have served, but no longer respect this man in any way for any reason.


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