Despite continuing backlash, retired Gen. Wesley Clark tells NPR he stands by his comments that Republican Sen. John McCain's military service does not necessarily qualify him to be president.
When Clark himself sought the presidency four years ago, he touted his military credentials as former supreme commander of NATO under Bill Clinton. The difference now, Clark says, is that unlike him, McCain did not serve in an executive capacity.
"I did lead the armed force of NATO to a successful military action that saved a million and a half Albanians," Clark tells NPR's Michele Norris. "And I don't want to compare myself to John McCain. I wasn't a prisoner of war. I don't in any way equate what my tour in Vietnam was to his experience there. But I did serve at the strategic level."
Clark says that McCain, by contrast, did not serve at that level. "And I do believe the experiences that I had were very relevant to what someone could bring to high-level leadership of the United States government."
Clark first made his controversial comments about McCain on the Sunday CBS News program Face the Nation with Bob Schieffer. His remarks have prompted criticism from many quarters, including from Democrat Barack Obama's campaign.
On Tuesday, Clark spoke at length with NPR. Below is an excerpted version of that interview.
NORRIS: Why did your statement on the Sunday morning talk show cause such a stir?
CLARK: First of all, I want to tell you that I totally respect John McCain's service. I honor him. He's been to my home for dinner. I like John McCain.
This election is going to be a wartime election. American soldiers are in danger. Our country is at risk abroad. And we need a president who can keep America safe and handle the national security tasks. ... And my point is — and my point to Bob Schieffer was — that [McCain's] early experiences [in Vietnam] were at a level where he wasn't really confronting the hard realities that come at the strategic level, where the president of the United States has to operate.
It seems that you're changing your tune when it comes to the merits of military service for a presidential candidate. Four years ago, when John Kerry was running for office, you said, "John Kerry has heard the thump of enemy mortars. He's seen the flash of the tracers. He's lived the values of service and sacrifice. He proved his physical courage under fire." You went on to say that John Kerry is a man who, in time of war, can lead us as a warrior. So why is military service a less important qualification now than it was four years ago?
I think that you can always cite a candidate's service in the armed forces as a testimony to his character and his courage. But I don't think early service justifies moving away from looking at a candidate's judgment.
When you yourself were a candidate for president, you touted your own military service. And I seem to remember you saying that that was part of what made you a well-qualified candidate to sit in the Oval Office.
I did lead the armed force of NATO to a successful military action that saved a million and a half Albanians. I did make the recommendations on targeting. I did go to heads of state and ministers of defense and ministers of foreign affairs, the North Atlantic council, and helped hold NATO together. So I not only saw war at the bottom, but I saw war at the top.
And I don't want to compare myself to John McCain. I wasn't a prisoner of war. I don't in any way equate what my tour in Vietnam was to his experience there. But I did serve at the strategic level. John McCain, noble though his service was, didn't serve at that level, didn't have those experiences. And I do believe the experiences that I had were very relevant to what someone could bring to high-level leadership of the United States government.
So what national security qualifications does Sen. Barack Obama have that Sen. John McCain does not, if you were to put them side by side and compare their experiences?
I think it has to do with high appreciation for the place of the United States in the world, the ability to use diplomacy as well as force, and the judgment that he's shown in dealing with national security questions. He has said that the war in Iraq was a mistake to go into. That proved to be a better judgment than the judgment of Sen. McCain.
[Obama has] also said he would talk to foreign leaders, even if we disagreed with them. And I agree with that. He said that we should begin a process of taking our troops out of Iraq. I think that's the superior judgment, because I think if you look at what will motivate the Iraqis to come together politically — if they will at all — it will be the threat of the American disengagement from Iraq. So on these matters of judgment, I think his judgment is proving sound.