Military Service and the Presidential Candidates

Our quandry in Iraq is clearly one of today’s top issues to most American voters. In less than two years, a new president is going to face some very tough decisions — being commander in chief of our nation’s military forces will not be easy in the coming years.

To be sure, between now and the elections, our current president and the current Congress will spar and disagree about what exactly to do and how precisely to do it. However, it’s unlikely that we’ll be pulling out of Iraq soon in the manner some are calling for. Instead, despite the political haggling, we’ll still be in the middle of the mix. Our troops, tired as they are, will for the most part want to stay and finish the job. Our enemies, resilient as they appear to be, will be hoping for a repeat of Vietnam, Beirut, and Somalia — America pulling out with its tail between its legs. Whomever is elected and whatever decisions he or she makes after taking office may to some degree depend on their military experience. Or will it?

Of the six major candidates currently in the race — McCain, Giuliani, Romney, Clinton, Obama, and Edwards — only one has personal military experience — John McCain. Giuliani and Romney, both eligible for the draft during the Vietnam era, received deferments, which were quite appropriate for their personal circumstances at the time. Interestingly enough is that many Americans equate deferments as a means of specifically avoiding service in Vietnam. In the ten years of the war, less than 500,000 draftees actually served in Vietnam — over three-fourths of all draftees saw duty elsewhere.

By the time Obama and Edwards were eligible for military service, the draft had ended and they chose other paths besides the military. As for Hillary, women were only a very small percentage of the force when she might have joined, and she too went in a different direction.

How then does military experience, or lack thereof, play out in the upcoming elections? First, it’s important to remember that Iraq is only the ongoing centerpiece of this long war on terror in which we’re engaged. To be sure, since 9/11 the war hasn’t hit us again at home. But at some point it will. In the interim, we’ll play out what’s happening in Iraq, we’ll try to tidy up the battlefield in Afghanistan, and we’ll likely become more pro-active in regions where al-Qaeda and supportive terrorist groups are building their capacity and capabilities.

All eyes will be on our new commander in chief as the decisions are made about what to do and how to do it. With or without military experience, the new president will be the one who is ultimately responsible. And with or without military experience, how he or she does will depend to a very large degree on where he or she seeks or gets advice. It will be the backgrounds and experience of the president’s advisors which become important, not just the president’s. And what kind of advice they’re able to provide will be critical to how our military is able to fare on the new battlefields in which we will find ourselves engaged.

Although our conventional forces have performed exceptionally in Iraq and Afghanistan, the larger war on terror isn’t about tanks, artillery, aircraft carriers, or jet planes. It’s about the employment of our unconventional forces to train, prepare, and equip foreign forces to engage terrorists within their own countries, and of our elite special operations forces to take down terrorists, their training camps, and their support mechanisms — wherever they may be. If the new president fails to hear the message from the unconventional military mindset and experience, he/she will be doomed to deploying conventional forces into countries, regions, and warfare for which they are ill-suited and ill-prepared. Like Iraq, we could once again find ourselves in a difficult situation without a clear plan for either victory or withdrawal. And like Vietnam, Beirut, and Somalia, we could find an American public that is tired of the battle and an American Congress clamoring to bring the troops home.

In the final analysis, whomever becomes our next president will have to surround him/herself with smart, capable, and qualified people. And if he/she wants to succeed at defending the homeland by keeping the battle away from our own shores, the new president will have to employ our nation’s military might in manners that are appropriate, judicious, and productive. We can’t afford to lose, and we can’t afford to squander our forces. More importantly, we can’t afford to sit by idly while our enemies plan our demise. We’ll certainly be expecting a lot from that new president.

Lt. Col. Bill Cowan is a FOX News Channel contributor and internationally-acknowledged expert in the areas of terrorism, homeland security, intelligence and military special operations. He spent 11 years doing undercover operations in Lebanon against Hezbollah and Syria. Read his full bio here.