Magazine article The American Prospect

The Democrats' Military Option

Magazine article The American Prospect

The Democrats' Military Option

Article excerpt

Count me among the skeptics as to whether a politically untested general can successfully run the gauntlet of a Democratic presidential-primary campaign in America today. The organizational confusion, inconsistent statements and other troubles that beset Wesley Clark in the first weeks of his campaign all testified to his lack of political experience.

But count me also a believer in the potential payoff in reframing the national political debate if Clark allays these early concerns and captures the Democratic nomination. To many in the party, the chief appeal of the retired general is that he insulates Democrats from charges of being unpatriotic or weak on national security. Yet on domestic issues, Clark's military background may also prove an important, unanticipated asset.

During the past several decades, the American military has become a model of successful social reform. Perhaps the best example is racial integration. While many other institutions remain nearly as segregated today as they were before the civil-rights legislation of the 1960s, the armed services have undergone a transformation. Officers are evaluated for promotion partly on the basis of their handling of race relations, and the military has emerged as one of the most influential defenders of affirmative action.

The introduction of women into the military has also led the services to create child care and other family-oriented programs that are far in advance of what corporate America typically offers. Military training and career ladders provide models of workforce improvement. And, of course, the military has long offered generous health-care and retirement benefits.

In many other countries, particularly in the developing world, the military has played a socially progressive role. Most of us are not used to thinking of the American military that way, and, indeed, the top echelons of the armed forces have been overwhelmingly Republican and conservative. But the social changes within the military have moved it in a more liberal direction. As a result, the significance of a general in American politics is entirely different today from what it would be if the armed forces remained a segregated bastion of social conservatism. …

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