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More Detail on Trusting the Generals

September 23rd, 2007

About ten days ago, when commenting on the testimony given by General Petraeus, I wrote this:

I know what the knee-jerk right-wing response will be: what about Wesley Clark? Well, his service in the military gives him the same basic standing as Petraeus. Because we know Clark has presidential ambitions, we weigh his words with those ambitions in mind. The exact same applies to Petraeus. Both generals must be considered not to simply give the straight story, but rather the story that serves them best as far as a political campaign is concerned.

I soon noticed in my web stats that several people were coming from a web page, in which someone had linked to me saying this:

The blogger points out that Petraeus is politically ambitious and his testimony must be weighed in the light of that. He expects the right wing’s response to that criticism of Petraeus will be to say “what about General Clark?”, to which he responds, no problem, we can weigh General Clark’s words with his ambitions in mind as well. … I thought General Clark might be amused by this blog.

Clearly this supporter sees his preferred candidate as above such things. And well he might be. Perhaps I did not make myself clear enough; perhaps this commenter thinks that I see Clark as being no better or more honorable than Petraeus.

A quick search of my blog would tell you differently, but as I said, I may not have expressed myself as clearly as I should have.

Here’s the concept: generals carry weight with public opinion for two reasons–first, their service and perceived accomplishments to earn their rank, and second, because they are thought to represent the military, and to be dedicated to serve the people of the United States of America, gutsy enough to be willing to tell truth to power, brave enough to tough out the consequences and give up everything for their honor.

We have seen this quality demonstrated well enough in the past four years; how many generals have spoken up and and then been taken down by the Bush administration? How many have quit instead of prop up this sham? The answer is, quite a few.

Petraeus is not one of them. He has turned out to be a politician. He may still lay claim to the first reason why people respect generals–the assumption that he has earned the rank, until proven otherwise–but he cannot be expected to claim the second, that he is giving it to us straight. In revealing his political ambitions, he has set aside that automatic presumption and revealed a built-in bias. He may or may not be lying, we must judge that for ourselves–but he can no longer step up and expect the fact the he is a general in the armed forces be enough for the public to believe in what he says. That is why Petraeus does not deserve the sacred honor that Republicans try to paint him as having, as being above suspicion or reproach.

So what of Clark? Is what he says suspect? Of course. He lays claim to the same genesis–he worked his way up to be a general, he served in the armed forces, and that means something to most Americans. But he no longer serves in the armed forces, and he has his own political ambitions. That does not mean he is lying, or that he has allowed his ambition to overpower his duty to give it straight to his countrymen.

But it does mean that we cannot automatically expect that of him. It means that we have to weigh his words like we weigh the words of any politician. As with Petraeus, he has the credibility of a man who has worked his way up to be a general. Also like Petraeus, he must now earn our trust by telling it straight because we know both have ambitions that could potentially cloud their judgment.

Petraeus has failed that test; he has clearly told us a story that is politically skewed. He has contradicted well-known fact, and revealed his fealty to a politician rather than to his people. Had he done the latter, he might have told us that he feels we need to stay in Iraq and finish the job, but he would not have snowed us with twisted statistics and rosy fantasies of how “well” things are going. He has discarded the trust he earned via his position by way of his current actions.

Clark, on the other hand, has stayed true to the principles he swore to uphold, and has continued to earn the trust we first placed in him. Again, read my blog posts on the general and you’ll see why I respect him.

But I also respect the process of critical thinking and sound judgment, which is why I hold both generals’ statement as suspect due to their ambitions, until their words and actions prove otherwise.

And I expect that General Clark would agree, if he is the man I expect him to be.

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