Monday, August 30, 2010

A discomfort with being commander-in-chief

The New York Times had a long story yesterday about Obama as commander-in-chief, "For Obama, Steep Learning Curve as Chief in Time of War." It was generally written as a complimentary story, but one characteristic stands out - he has a level of discomfort with being a president at war. He doesn't want to talk about the war too much because of a concern that his presidency would be defined by the wars.
A year and a half into his presidency, Mr. Obama appears to be a reluctant warrior. Even as he draws down troops in Iraq, he has been abundantly willing to use force to advance national interests, tripling forces in Afghanistan, authorizing secret operations in Yemen and Somalia, and escalating drone strikes in Pakistan. But advisers said he did not see himself as a war president in the way his predecessor did. His speech on Tuesday is notable because he talks in public about the wars only sporadically, determined not to let them define his presidency.
I'm sorry. He is a president. He has ordered more troops into Afghanistan and some of those men and women are dying and will continue to die. Why shouldn't he speak of that more often and keep reminding the American people why we are fighting in Afghanistan? These troops deserve more than a sporadic mention. If we are going to be committed to Afghanistan, those troops also deserve to be more than a consideration in domestic politics.
One adviser at the time said Mr. Obama calculated that an open-ended commitment would undermine the rest of his agenda. “Our Afghan policy was focused as much as anything on domestic politics,” the adviser said. “He would not risk losing the moderate to centrist Democrats in the middle of health insurance reform and he viewed that legislation as the make-or-break legislation for his administration.”

White House officials reject the linkage, but said Mr. Obama believed that the wars should be judged against other priorities. Preparing to announce his decision last December, he read Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address and included a line in his own speech at West Point: “Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.”
Trying to maintain balance in spending is one thing, but if there was any political consideration trying to guarantee votes for his domestic programs while he crafted our policy for fighting a war, there is something dreadfully askew there.

Another aspect of his military leadership covered in the article is the extent to which he depends on Secretary of Defense Gates for his tutoring on military matters as well as for advice on policy. That will be a big hole in his administration once Gates steps down. We can just hope that his replacement will be a person of similar caliber.

What comes through is that Obama is uncomfortable in his role as commander-in-chief and doesn't want to talk about the war because of political considerations.
The sensitivities about calling attention to the unpopular war in Afghanistan, and particularly America’s problematic partner, played out when President Hamid Karzai visited last May. General McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry wanted to take Mr. Karzai to Fort Campbell in Kentucky to honor troops leaving for Afghanistan, but the White House objected that it sent the wrong message, as if Americans were fighting for Mr. Karzai. They compromised by having Mr. Gates go as well, but without his Washington press corps.

“From an image point of view, he doesn’t seem to embrace it, almost like you have to drag him into doing it,” said Peter D. Feaver, a Bush adviser with military contacts. “There’s deep uncertainty and perhaps doubt in the military about his commitment to see the wars through to a successful conclusion.”

Much of the public too is confused about the president’s Afghan strategy, as White House aides and their critics acknowledge. “There have only been a few moments when he’s tried to focus the nation’s attention on Afghanistan because, quite frankly, it’s competing with the other priorities,” said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who opposes the strategy. “It’s probably one of the reasons public support has fallen, because they see the costs but they don’t know his thinking about it.”
He has a duty as the nation's leader at a time of war to keep public support. He may not enjoy doing so and may think that it will detract attention from his preferred priorities, but he is also the man who ridiculed John McCain after the financial meltdown by saying that a president has to be able to do more than one thing at a time. He also has to be able to talk to the public about more than one subject. And he shouldn't sacrifice gaining support for the war just because his priorities lie elsewhere.