I’ve finally gotten around to reading Peter Baker’s massive front-page story in the Sunday New York Times about Obama as commander in chief. I share some of the disquiet expressed by Jennifer Rubin about the president’s lack of knowledge and interest in defense affairs, but that’s hardly unusual for a chief executive. With his focus on domestic policy and his view that foreign crises are an unwelcome “distraction,” Obama echoes most recent presidents, including both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Bush, of course, shed that outlook after 9/11, whereas Obama hasn’t — yet. I predict he will before long because he will realize what most presidents realize: that they have the greatest impact in foreign affairs and national-security policy, whereas on domestic issues, they have to beg for help from a recalcitrant Congress. So far, Obama has managed to push most of his agenda through the Hill, but that is likely to change after the November elections bring big gains for Republicans; after that he will probably find foreign affairs a relief rather than a burden.
In the meantime, however, I was not wholly depressed by Baker’s article. There were, I believe, some positives in it, including the revelation that it was Obama’s personal brainstorm to replace General McChrystal with David Petraeus in Afghanistan (Bob Gates evidently wanted to keep McChrystal on with a reprimand). That was surely a brilliant stroke and speaks well to his creativity and his ability to be decisive. More than that, I was cheered by this line:
When he held a videoconference on Iraq on his first full day in office, officials recalled, he said: “Guys, before you start, there’s one thing I want to say to you and that is I do not want to screw this up.”
That sentiment — “I do not want to screw this up” — explains a lot. It explains why Obama has gone more slowly on the Iraq withdrawal than the left would have liked and why he has bucked his liberal base to build up U.S. forces in Afghanistan. For all his obsession with domestic issues, he evidently realizes that losing wars is bad for a president’s reputation. That’s good for those of us who believe that it’s vitally important for the country’s interests to win the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. However reluctantly, Obama apparently has come to share that belief.