Jan. 19, 2009
How Obama Became a Commander in Chief
Washington Post: One Year After his Election, a Look at How Obama Made Himself into the Leader of a Military at War
* President Barack Obama speaks about the war in Afghanistan at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2009.
(Washington Post) This story was written by Scott Wilson.
Through a haze of grief, Dona Griffin watched President Obama turn toward her, opening his arms to offer a hug.
A midnight knock on her door the previous evening had brought her from her home in Terre Haute, Ind., to the morgue at Dover Air Force Base and into a presidential embrace. The body of her son, Army Sgt. Dale R. Griffin, and those of 17 other Americans killed in Afghanistan waited in the frigid hold of a military cargo plane standing on the runway.
Obama had flown in by helicopter from Washington. Nearing a decision about whether to send thousands more troops to the battlefield, he wanted to witness the homecoming of dead soldiers.
The visit was part of an eclectic self-education program Obama has undertaken to become a wartime commander in chief. He has emerged as a president uncomfortable with the swagger and rhetoric traditionally used to rally troops, favoring an image of public solemnity as he wrestles with the moral consequences of war. Republicans have criticized him for being reticent in the face of crisis and for taking too long to set strategy.
But even as Obama has sought to convey an image of a deliberate leader preoccupied with the battle's human toll, he has used military power at least as aggressively as his Republican predecessor did during the waning years of his administration. In his first year in office, Obama has set in motion plans to triple the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan; expanded operations against U.S. enemies in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen; and, in one early instance of his willingness to use deadly force, authorized Special Forces snipers to kill three Somali pirates holding an American hostage.
The politician who brashly opposed the Iraq invasion has had more than 443 U.S. service members die while serving under his command. On a chilly October evening, in a stark waiting room at Dover, he leaned toward Dona Griffin less than 24 hours after she learned that her 29-year-old son had been killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.
"I found myself with my hand in his, and he was asking if there's anything he could do," she recalled. "I put my left hand behind his left elbow, and leaned forward, and whispered in his ear, 'Mr. President, please don't leave our troops hanging.'"
Hoops with Troops
In the fall of 2002, as the Bush administration rallied the country for an invasion of Iraq, Obama, then an Illinois state senator, appeared at an antiwar demonstration in Chicago's Federal Plaza.
"I'm not opposed to all wars," he told a crowd made up of many who were. "I'm opposed to dumb wars."
Obama never served in the military, and early in the speech he cited his maternal grandfather as a kind of surrogate. A World War II veteran who "fought in Patton's Army," Stanley Dunham embodied for him the necessity to fight those who will not yield to anything but force.
"I think he came to office with a sophisticated understanding of the use of power and when it is necessary," said David Axelrod, a senior adviser who began working with Obama the year he delivered the "dumb war" speech. "What no one can understand before coming to the office, though, is the gravity that surrounds those decisions."
Obama prepared early. As a candidate, he made several unannounced visits to retired Gen. Colin L. Powell at his Alexandria office, seeking advice about leadership and command from perhaps the most famous soldier of his generation. Powell had worked at the highest levels of government, in uniform and as a civilian, and Obama trusted him to offer counsel free of partisan prejudice.
"He understood that this was something he'd never done before and that he'd have to learn it on the job," said Powell, who said Obama has "done well as commander in chief." "He was also confident in his ability to surround himself with people who could help him learn it."
On the campaign trail, Obama was perceived as vulnerable on national security, which his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), sought to make his own. The son and grandson of Navy admirals, McCain was a war hero whom most Americans could envision as commander in chief.
Obama, a first-term U.S. senator of cool temperament, was harder to imagine in the role. In July 2008, he stepped off a plane at a U.S. staging base in Kuwait for his first encounter with troops in a theater of war as a possible next president. It was an opportunity to put some doubts to rest.
Obama was tired from the long flight, and a hip injury limited a basketball game to an informal shoot-around session. But the Senate staff members accompanying him were stunned when, on arriving at the gym, they discovered that more than 1,000 service members had packed the stands to watch. Some of Obama's aides worried that a poor showing would yield images of Commander Air Ball.
"Just make a shot or two, and that'll be all right," Antony J. Blinken, then the director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff and now Vice President Biden's national security adviser, told Obama.
"Oh, I'll make the shot," he answered.
He squared up behind the three-point arc for a jump shot that zipped through the net. The troops erupted, and a potentially awkward encounter ended in a moment of schoolyard glory, with future commander and troops appearing largely as equals. As president, months later, he would take a more paternal view of his relationship with his forces.
A change of mind
Upon taking office, Obama moved quickly to imprint his view of war on the vast national security apparatus, drawing criticism from conservatives in doing so. Within days, he banned the use of torture in interrogation and ordered the closing of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by Jan. 22, 2010 -- a deadline that will be missed.
The executive orders were part of a review of the Bush-era protocols that framed the "global war on terror," a term Obama immediately discouraged his advisers from using because he said it overstated al-Qaeda's strength. To the former constitutional law lecturer, the refinements in language and policy strengthened the moral argument for war.
Obama, in his new role, disregarded the advice of his military commanders and heeded the demands of civil libertarians after a campaign in which he promised a more transparent government.
Over the initial objection of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, the president allowed the release in April of the Bush-era memos that served as the legal justification for what were called "enhanced interrogation methods." That same month, the administration announced that it would comply with a court order demanding the release of as many as 2,000 photographs depicting prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and other U.S.-run detention sites.
Gen. Ray Odierno, his commander in Iraq, opposed the decision, and Obama viewed a sampling of the photos. He changed his mind, saying that making the pictures public would "further inflame anti-American opinion and put our troops in danger."
"There are more than 200,000 Americans who are serving in harm's way, and I have a solemn responsibility for their safety as commander in chief," Obama said in a speech at the National Archives explaining his decision.
Civil libertarians, with whom Obama had once sided, felt betrayed. Republicans saw the decisions as an unworkable compromise. Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute within minutes of Obama's address, former vice president Richard B. Cheney said, "The administration seems to pride itself on searching for some kind of middle ground in policies addressing terrorism."
He added: "But in the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half exposed."