Man of War

By Carter, Stephen L. | Newsweek, January 17, 2011 | Go to article overview

Man of War


Carter, Stephen L., Newsweek


Byline: Stephen L. Carter

How does Barack Obama differ as a commander in chief from his swaggering predecessor? A lot less than you might think.

The election of Barack Obama, according to critics and admirers alike, ushered in a new era in American foreign policy. Perhaps. But it did not usher in a new era in American warfare. Under Obama, we fight in much the same way that we did under his predecessor--for similar reasons, with similar justifications. Strip away the soaring rhetoric and you begin to discover what probably we should have known from the start: when it comes to war, presidents do what they think they must.

Obama might have run in 2008 as the peace candidate, but next time around he will be running as a war president. This simple truth cannot be avoided. Although the next presidential election will doubtless feature bitter disputes over domestic policy, it will also be a referendum on Obama as commander in chief of the mightiest armed forces on the face of the globe.

Surely a degree of Barack Obama's electoral victory was due to his successful effort to persuade voters that he was a builder of bridges. It even looks as if he has; not in domestic policy, which remains as polarized as ever, but in his approach to war. True, there were people on the left and right alike who thought that America had elected an antiwar president, but that simply turned out not to be true. Rather, the nation elected a president in the tradition of American wartime leaders: a man ultimately willing, whether or not it was his original intention, to sacrifice idealism for pragmatism in pursuit of his primary duty of keeping the nation safe.

The office of the presidency, once assumed, transforms the outlook of its holder. If the first job of the executive is the protection of the nation's security, the choices presented when the commander in chief must actually sit in the Oval Office and make a decision turn out to be few. The need to pick from among several unappealing ways to defend the nation is what separates presidents from pundits. I believe that much of the virulent hatred directed at President Obama's predecessor, and at Obama himself, arises from a rejection of this proposition. To the hater, the world is simple, not complex. The answers are obvious. "If the president were only as clear-eyed and wise as I am," the protester thinks, "he would see the world as it truly is, and make better decisions." It turns out, however, that in time of war, very different presidents may see the world in roughly the same way.

President Obama, succeeding President George W. Bush, largely adopted Bush's approach to Iraq; decided to use a version of that approach in prosecuting the war in Afghanistan; and widened the terror war beyond the targets pursued by the Bush administration. In the end, the administration even adopted parts of the Bush doctrine. True, Obama cast aside its more idealistic aspect: using American power to build democracy. On the other hand, President Obama has adopted wholeheartedly what we might call the Bush doctrine's political science: the determination to fight our enemies overseas, eliminating them where possible, rather than wait to be attacked.

There is a trope about President Obama, a meme he must set himself to battle: the notion that he cares about domestic policy but has no passion even for a war he insists is a necessity. Middle East expert Fouad Ajami put it this way: "He fights the war with Republican support, but his constituency remains isolationist at heart."

The claim about Obama's constituency may be true--who knows?--but I see no reason to be skeptical of the president's determination to pursue both the Afghan war and the terror war. True, for reasons that are not clear, Obama rarely speaks of victory. This is unfortunate. Wars do have victors, and they do have losers, and if you believe in what you are doing, then it is better to win than to lose. …

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