Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Is Obama a reluctant warrior?

Peter Feaver of Duke, a noted scholar-practitioner and a longtime friend, suggests that President Obama is casualty-phobic to the point that he undermines the military operations he authorizes.

After noting limitations Obama imposed on several military operations, he takes notes of a Washington Post article by Greg Jaffe.
Jaffe quotes Obama’s principal communications advisor, Ben Rhodes: “We believe it is a national security objective not to be losing service members in wars.” If Rhodes was trying to say that the administration does not want the military to take needless risks, then he picked an especially unfortunate way of conveying that idea. For the message Rhodes sent, intentionally or not — and the message I believe the military received — was: “the Obama administration elevates force protection above mission accomplishment.” And that is the early indicator of casualty phobia.

Statements like this exacerbate what has been Obama’s most vexing debility in the area of fulfilling his responsibilities as commander-in-chief: never has a U.S. president presided over such an extensive use of the military while doing so little to mobilize public and political support for those military missions. Even very ardent supporters of the president have commented in private about how reluctant Obama is to make the public case on behalf of the wars and military missions, especially during the crucial phases of the fight when the success or failure of the mission still hangs in the balance.
I have a different take on the same facts. Yes, Obama put a somewhat higher priority on ending the wars begun by his predecessor than on continuing them with the hope of success. That reflected both his view of his political mandate and his doubts about military planners who wanted more resources with no real endpoint in view -- a trait with a long history. After all, the goal of both wars was a political accommodation that has been quite limited, despite the military efforts to buy time and security for it to occur.

And yes, Obama does not give frequent speeches trying to build pubic support for U.S. military operations, which seems to be Feaver's key test of leadership. I think other tests are even more valid -- such as approving risky operations like the Bin Laden raid, such as approving extensive lethal drone operations despite widespread public uneasiness, such as defending large military budgets despite calls from his political base to cutback.

No, Obama is a reluctant warrior, and a cautious one. General Colin Powell applied the same label to himself and no one doubted his leadership.

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