Peter Wehner’s post on this posits, in effect, a form of moral reasoning for Obama’s odd public profile since the coalition attacks in Libya began on Saturday. The president’s apparent disengagement from U.S. military operations has come off as intentional, as if someone is staging his activities to put armed force in its place as a focus of political attention.
The American people are accustomed to seeing the president announce new military operations from the Oval Office. We are also accustomed to seeing the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the early Pentagon briefings, even if someone else does most of the talking. These things are arranged by conscious choice, not because the schedules of top officials happen to allow them. When American forces go into combat, schedules change.
But Obama’s didn’t – and oddly enough, although Secretary Gates’s trip to Moscow was delayed because of the operations in Libya, he was not present for the Pentagon briefings over the weekend. Admiral William Gortney was there by himself, without Admiral Mullen or so much as an undersecretary of defense to give him “top cover.”
Washington politicians are acutely and continuously aware of the “messages” being sent by their actions. It would be absurd to suggest that Obama’s advisers didn’t realize how this would look. No one is that hapless. The appearance, rather, is of a point being made about the inferior significance of military operations. They are not the big deal that Republicans, neocons, and traditionalists make of them. They have their place as a tool of national power, but they can be executed as routine business. Their inauguration need not be attended by any pious observance.
It appears that it was particularly important to Obama to be seen kicking a soccer ball with Brazilian children and clinking glasses with Latin American leaders while the military he commands was entering combat over Libya. This echoes a theme in community organizing: that schmoozing the political establishment and “relating with the people” will ultimately trump the organized backbone of the middle-class authority structure. For community organizers, the military is like homeowners, landlords, retailers, bankers, parents, policemen, or city councilmen: occasionally useful, perhaps, but still a part of the authority structure relied on by the existing middle-class order.
Americans expect certain observances when it comes to military operations because we have a more traditional view of war, society, and the military. But Obama is again behaving as if he is, first and foremost, an ideologue. He is the first president we’ve had who downplayed the point of military operations, in explicit speech and attitude, while undertaking them.
I’m optimistic that the military itself will withstand this depressing development; if it prompts more public commentary like Peter’s post, America may even derive some good from it. We haven’t had a thorough public debate on the nature and purpose of war for a very long time. Obama may not change course, but observing the failure of the radical-left principles driving his policies may help Americans to fully understand both the bankruptcy of those principles and their invulnerability to political domestication.