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You know who I really, really wouldn't run against on a national-security platform? A Nobel Peace Prize winner who killed Osama bin Laden.
But that's just me. Last week Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, in an extended and generally thoughtful interview with President Obama, asked the following question:
GOLDBERG: One of the aspects of this is the question of whether it's plausible that Barack Obama would ever use military power to stop Iran. The Republicans are trying to make this an issue -- and not only the Republicans -- saying that this man, by his disposition, by his character, by his party, by his center-left outlook, is not going to do that.
Three days after Goldberg published that interview, Obama's Attorney General gave a speech declaring that the Executive Branch could target American citizens for assassination whenever it liked, because (wait for it), the "due process" demanded in the Constitution is not the same as judicial process. By Holder's standard, as long as the President and his aides use a process when they're deciding who to kill, it's all good with the Founders. Which leads us to the question: how could someone with the disposition, the character, and the center-left outlook to order unreviewed drone strikes on American citizens ever bring himself to use military force?
Not seeing Obama as he really is has become one of our national pastimes, and both the Left and the Right play it at championship level. Some people on the Left cannot forgive Obama for not being the peacenik we (and I include myself in that "we") wanted to think we were electing. And I'm certainly not happy about the stands he's taken on targeted killings, or on executive detention. But to give Obama his due, he was absolutely up front with the voters about his military plans if elected. He wanted to get out of Iraq, but recommit to Afghanistan, and he's done that. He explicitly told the American voters, on TV, that he would hunt and kill Osama bin Laden. He didn't say capture or apprehend. He didn't even go with Bush's swaggering "dead or alive." Obama said "kill," full stop. And that's what he did. He also said, in both the primary and general-election debates, that we was willing to breach Pakistani sovereignty if that's what it took to get Bin Laden. Even if some of us don't have the President that we thought or hoped we were electing, on military questions we definitely have the President that the candidate told us he would be.
Right wing critics, on the other hand, fervently insist that Obama somehow is the peacenik that the Left thought he was, and that he's coddling America's military enemies. This coddling generally takes the form of relentless attacks with predator drones, and I suspect our enemies get tired of it pretty quickly. The idea of Obama as weakling is a strange but resilient fantasy, impossible to disprove because it's never been even remotely based on military reality.
So let's review what we, as voters, actually did in the 2008 general election:
We replaced George W. Bush with a better and more effective war leader.
This is not the story anybody tells. It is not what anybody believes happened. But it is what obviously did happen. Barack Obama has been a very effective war leader, given the mess he inherited. In fact, he's been much, much better at coping with the gigantic military mess that Bush II left behind than he has been at coping with the gigantic economic mess Bush left behind. (This only makes sense: Obama could start thinking about military strategies before he even started campaigning, but when the economic crisis hit we were already in the countdown to Election Day.) Obama succeeds because, unlike George W. Bush, he keeps his eye on the ball: achieving goals and taking out enemies while risking as few American troops as possible.
This is what we voted for, and when it comes down to it, what the average middle-of-the-road voter wants: more victories, fewer casualties. This country didn't turn away from George W. Bush and sour on the Iraq war because they had developed philosophical objections to warmongering or were worried about erosion of habeas corpus. They turned against Bush and his wars because those wars brought casualties instead of victories. Most American voters don't like Americans getting killed. And most voters like presidents who get things done. That's Barack Obama as Commander-in-Chief: soldiers come home and jobs get done.
So Obama gets behind the bombing campaign in Libya, and Qaddhafi gets toppled without American boots on the ground. Obama authorizes predator drone strikes and special forces raids and more predator drone strikes, targeted attacks with calculate risk against reward. He signs off on the Bin Laden raid deep inside Pakistan but insists on a backup helicopter. Which takes us back to Goldberg's question:
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Look, if people want to say about me that I have a profound preference for peace over war, that every time I order young men and women into a combat theater and then see the consequences on some of them, if they're lucky enough to come back, that this weighs on me -- I make no apologies for that. Because anybody who is sitting in my chair who isn't mindful of the costs of war shouldn't be here, because it's serious business. These aren't video games that we're playing here.
Now, having said that, I think it's fair to say that the last three years, I've shown myself pretty clearly willing, when I believe it is in the core national interest of the United States, to direct military actions, even when they entail enormous risks.
Since Barack Obama used most of his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech lecturing about Just-War Theory and when he felt justified launching military attacks, I'd think that's much more than fair to say. But here's the truth: that preference for peace over war, that refusal to risk people without a compelling reason, is part of why he is good at this. Weighing risk and reward is a virtue in almost any enterprise, but it's especially important as a military virtue. Good commanders don't take pointless risks. This is why George H. W. Bush, mocked on national television for using the word "prudent," won a war in Iraq and why his swaggering son did not. This is why John McCain, whose solution to seemingly every problem is to send more troops, never became an admiral like his father and grandfather, and why he did not become president.
The fantasy that Obama is weak on defense is deeply and dearly held by Republicans, and the three Republican presidential candidates who've managed to carry states have all begun, to various degrees, attacking that presumed weakness. But by "being stronger," the Obama-is-weak crowd mean "acting tougher, in a loud theatrical way." They mistake swagger for strength. They think George W. Bush was "strong" because he'd say dumb stuff like "Bring it on," and fearlessly send lots of other people into unnecessary danger. They think John McCain, who was angry at Obama for not sending American ground troops to Libya and who during the 2008 campaign urged a military intervention against Russia, is "strong," because he's an impetuous hothead who always wants more boys in harm's way. And this kind of tough-on-TV thing can pass for strength for a little while, because most of our country is so insulated from the sacrifices that our military make. But given time, and we've been at war for more than a decade, voters figure this out. In peace time, the guy who makes the biggest show of toughness in the bar gets treated as the tough guy. In war, people learn the difference and don't forget it. Sonny Corleone acts tougher than Michael Corleone, but that's no reason to get in the car with him.
The leading Republican candidates don't seem to have grasped this yet. And they (or their base) seem fixated on the idea that Obama's weakness as a war leader will make him vulnerable to attack. Attacking one of your opponent's strongest points because you've mistaken it for a weak one is pretty much the opposite of strategy. Ask Custer.
Let's remember what that naive peacenik state senator from Illinois said all those years ago when he opposed the second Iraq war:
I'm not against all wars. I'm against dumb wars.
If that's a platform you want to campaign against, good luck. You were never going to make a good commander-in-chief anyway.