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National Security / NATIONAL SECURITY

Obama’s Commander-In-Chief Strategy

The White House and Obama’s Chicago-based campaign staff is preparing to cast him as the most impressive Democratic president on national security in decades, perhaps since John F. Kennedy.(Carolyn Kaster/AP)

photo of Michael Hirsh
January 25, 2012

The daring nighttime rescue of two hostages in Somalia, including one American, by Navy SEALS—so reminiscent of other recent SEAL operations, especially the takedown of Osama bin Laden last May-- is far more than a successful military mission. It is also a preview of a key part of the administration’s re-election strategy, especially with the release of this statement early Wednesday from President Obama: "This is yet another message to the world that the United States of America will stand strongly against any threats to our people."

The Obama camp knows it has only a so-so case to make, at best, that the president’s performance on the economy qualifies him for a second term. So the White House and Obama’s Chicago-based campaign staff is preparing a well-thought-out effort to cast him as the most impressive Democratic president on national security in decades, perhaps since John F. Kennedy, National Journal has learned.

They may have a case. Despite the official derision with which the GOP candidates treat Obama on the campaign trail, a surprising number of Republican foreign-policy professionals -- some of whom worked for George W. Bush -- agree that the 44th president has been surprisingly impressive on these issues overall.

 

“I would regard this as the most capable and purposeful Democratic administration in foreign policy since John F. Kennedy’s,” says Philip Zelikow, a former senior counselor to Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s loyal secretary of State.

Oddly enough, Obama’s greatest strength has been a JFK-like willingness, even eagerness, to use hard power, if mainly covertly. There is, of course, the bin Laden mission, about which you will be hearing a great deal more over the next nine months. Obama himself gave us a preview at his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, when he opened things up by declaring he’d just welcomed troops home from Iraq and “for the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country. Most of al Qaeda's top lieutenants have been defeated.”

Not surprisingly, the Obama team is also preparing tough talking points against Mitt Romney and now, with his recent come-from-behind win in South Carolina and surge in Florida, a newly credible Newt Gingrich. “Speaker Gingrich is the man who once said in an interview that ‘I don't do foreign policy’,” said one Democratic official dismissively, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Gingrich has a long history of making erratic statements on foreign policy – from saying the U.S. should recognize Taiwan's independence to fear mongering about the scientifically unproven threat of an electromagnetic pulse attack from Iran. As Speaker, he managed to insult foreign leaders and alienate international partners with his controversial musings about foreign policy. Speaker Gingrich simply has not outlined anything resembling a realistic foreign policy platform to address the most pressing issues our nation faces overseas today.”

As for Romney, says an Obama campaign official, he has been all over the map with reckless rhetoric. “Romney has said he would have left tens of thousands of troops in Iraq indefinitely, with no plan for what they would do there or how he would end the war,” the official said.

The JFK comparison is telling. Kennedy looms larger in myth than in actual achievement, but he is credited with standing down Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis, and he was assassinated before he could make a decision on committing America in a big way in Vietnam.  Most importantly, however, it was after JFK that Democrats’ reputation in foreign policy suffered a long-term blow in Vietnam. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, never recovered and declined even to run for re-election in 1968. Jimmy Carter, the next Democratic president, also suffered from a fatal perception of weakness that culminated in the Iran hostage crisis and disastrous Desert One rescue mission, when a U.S. helicopter exploded on the ground. Bill Clinton is more highly regarded, and he grew ever-more comfortable with the use of power toward the end of his two terms, especially after his early misfire in Somalia when 18 soldiers were killed in another failed rescue mission. But Republicans perceived—and never stopped criticizing--a lingering squishiness in Clinton’s cautious cruise-missile slaps at Saddam Hussein and reluctance to go after bin Laden in Afghanistan.

As the White House sees it, Obama succeeded where Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter failed, taking an enormously risky decision that also involved a hair-raising helicopter-borne mission. That was only part of a broader program that Obama secretly inaugurated upon taking office. Although the administration does not publicly acknowledge the existence of the program, the number of Predator drone strikes on targets in Pakistan and elsewhere has more than tripled during Obama's presidency, and the CIA, supplied with more resources than it got under Bush, has conducted "the most aggressive counterterror ops in the agency's history," according to an intelligence official. A number of terror experts believe the terror group is now close to defeat.

And they say that he should get credit in areas that go well beyond his signature achievement: the takedown of America’s Bogeyman No. 1, Osama bin Laden, and most of his top lieutenants. They also cite Obama’s concerted effort to squeeze Iran in the last year, and the way the president has refocused U.S. diplomatic and military resources on constraining –but not “containing,” which would be considered a beat too aggressive—a rising China despite America’s enormous indebtedness to Beijing in Treasury bonds.  And the dexterous way that Obama has used force in countering terror and ousting Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya without a single American casualty. With NATO and the Arab League giving him cover, it could well go down as the least costly and most internationally supported success at regime change in U.S. history.

Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told National Journal the administration will seek to portray the president as a dependable and confidence-inspiring commander-in-chief. “Insofar as character is an issue, many ways in which he’s excelled that speaks to this issue: The ability to make tough decisions; to show grace under pressure,” he said. “As commander-in-chief he has demonstrated that he will make the difficult decisions to use forces in sometimes very risky situations, but he also recognizes the limits of military force.” During the election campaign, the campaign plans to highlight his “tremendous results”. “There is so much political noise,” says Rhodes, “but the president has built a record in the last three years that is in many respects unassailable.” Indeed, adds the campaign official, “For the first time in our lifetimes a Democratic president is running from a position of strength.”

We shall see. Foreign policy is not likely to be a major factor in this campaign. But trust in the commander-in-chief may well be. 

For more insight from Michael Hirsh on this strategy, look out for this week's edition of National Journal.

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