Obama as Commander in Chief

This post is not meant to be a partisan political one, but a few skeptical thoughts on the ‘experience’ debate. The Obama administration despite its gestures to multilateralism, conciliation and outreach still pursues hegemony and dominance for America, and this is why despite its symbolic attempts at transformation, the US still has a difficult and ambivalent relationship with the Middle East, China and others. In other words, I’m about to defend Obama on one point, but think his presidency marks more continuity than change from the Bush II years.

‘Experience’ is a word much deployed in US domestic politics, particularly when it comes to debating the credentials of presidential candidates. A repeated charge against President Obama is that he lacks experience to be Commander in Chief, and is decidedly unexpert in statecraft.

And how well experts have served us over the past few years. On paper, George Bush II assembled a group of seasoned and high calibre US public servants, from Colin Powell to Dick Cheney to Donald Rumsfeld. Experienced hands are responsible for Iraq, economic crisis, the inflaming of the Iranian confrontation, and a sharpening antagonism with Russia. That doesn’t mean experience caused these failures, but it was not much of a shield. Obama made one notable public judgement call before he ran for President, and in the final analysis, they were wrong and he was right.

Secondly, the victorious presidents of the civil war and World War Two lacked direct military experience, save for Lincoln’s brief spell on a quiet garrison during the Black Hawk war, and Roosevelt’s long-standing familiarity with the military as Secretary for the Navy. Lincoln’s briefest of brushes with military life can hardly have been a good preparation for steering the country through fratricide and crisis, and Roosevelt’s enthusiasm and knowledge about naval-military affairs can still have hardly prepared him for the unprecedented, gigantic, globe-girdling conflict of World War Two.

Third, and simply, war is bigger than the military dimension. Obama invoking Eisenhower recognises this, and it shows in his sustained effort not to let Iraq or Afghanistan overshadow all else, to balance the effort to stabilise those lands with the wider commitment to reversing America’s decline and enacting domestic reforms. He may not be a lifelong warlord, and his grand strategy may be fundamentally flawed, but he is attempting to put statecraft and the map before operations and the sword.

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