WASHINGTON — A single moment that may have defined President Obama as a surprisingly tough commander in chief came in December 2009, when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize while leading two wars.
“I face the world as it is and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people,” he told the Nobel Committee in Oslo. “For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.”
In the 11 months before the speech and the 22 months since, a president heralded as a liberal and hailed as a pacifist has built his national security record by taking out terrorists, stepping up drone attacks, sending 30,000 troops into Afghanistan and clearing the air for a NATO war against Libya that led to Moammar Gadhafi’s death Thursday.
As he heads toward a difficult re-election race, polls show voters believe Obama is handling the title “commander in chief” better than other aspects of his job — the economy, for instance. Belittled during the 2008 campaign by Hillary Rodham Clinton as ill-equipped to handle 3 a.m. phone calls at the White House and by Republican Sen. John McCain for backing “the path of retreat and failure” in Iraq, Obama has built a record on national security that’s proving difficult to attack.
“Without putting a single U.S. servicemember on the ground, we achieved our objectives, and our NATO mission will soon come to an end,” the president said Thursday in the White House Rose Garden. (He might have added: without the initial backing of Pentagon leaders and without seeking approval from Congress.)
“This comes at a time when we see the strength of American leadership across the world,” he said. “We’ve taken out al-Qaeda leaders, and we’ve put them on the path to defeat. We’re winding down the war in Iraq and have begun a transition in Afghanistan. And now, working in Libya with friends and allies, we’ve demonstrated what collective action can achieve in the 21st century.”
It was ironic that Obama’s 2008 foes were left to applaud Thursday’s events. On Capitol Hill, McCain said, “The administration deserves great credit” for Gadhafi’s demise. Clinton — piling up frequent flier miles in Obama’s employ as secretary of State — was hard at work in Afghanistan after meeting with Libyan transitional leaders in Tripoli on Tuesday. Her first reaction: “Wow!”
“There is a cold pragmatism about this president, and a very clear-eyed understanding that nation-states such as the United States have to use force or threaten to use force in order to achieve policy objectives,” says Andrew Exum, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, who led Army platoons in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2001-04.
Gadhafi’s downfall, however long in coming after his 42-year domination of Libya, could justify Obama’s decision to “lead from behind” rather than help NATO and Libyan rebels with more U.S. air power early on. Still, after doling out credit, McCain said on CNN “this would have been over a long time ago” if the administration had done just that.
Not so, countered Democratic Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Carl Levin of Michigan, who chair the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees.
“Though the administration was criticized both for moving too quickly and for not moving quickly enough, it is undeniable that the NATO campaign prevented a massacre and contributed mightily to Gadhafi’s undoing without deploying boots on the ground or suffering a single American fatality,” Kerry said. “This is a victory for multilateralism and successful coalition-building in defiance of those who derided NATO and predicted a very different outcome.”
‘Smart and daring and luck’
Obama’s record on the international front might not help him very much next November. The economy — top issue for six of 10 Americans — is in a stall. Unemployment is at 9.1percent and financial markets are subject to sudden, precipitous slides. Drawn-out debates about the federal deficit and national debt — ranked second in most polls — have tied his administration in knots.
On national security, Obama has done most of what he set out to do. He ended combat operations in Iraq to focus on Afghanistan and al-Qaeda. He’s worked in concert with allies as much as possible but gone it alone when necessary — most noticeably in ordering the stealthy, risky mission to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
He has requested small increases in defense spending later denied by Congress and reversed field on earlier decisions to close the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and hold terrorist trials in civilian courts. He has relied for advice on Bush administration holdovers such as Robert Gates and David Petraeus.
“It’s a combination of smart and daring and luck,” says Richard Clarke, a State Department official in the Reagan administration who held top counterterrorism posts under George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “He does have this element of courage to him.”
Republican presidential candidates, such as former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, say he’s talked too much and spent too little, leaving the United States weakened on the world stage. They say he’s let Israel down by boosting Palestinian statehood and propped up Iran by accepting the results of its presidential election.
Liberal Democrats, such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have criticized the pace at which he wants to remove troops from Afghanistan. They want an end to the 10-year-old war there — as do some GOP presidential candidates, such as Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul.
If the impact on his re-election chances is minimal, the record being left for historians to analyze could be the strongest of any Democratic president since Harry Truman.
John F. Kennedy fumbled the Bay of Pigs invasion. Lyndon Johnson’s presidency was brought down by Vietnam. Jimmy Carter lost re-election after failing to free 51 U.S. hostages in Iran. Clinton’s first military operation ended with the deaths of 19 U.S. soldiers in Somalia.
“There’s no doubt Obama’s had a better first term in the White House on foreign policy than any Democrat going back to Truman, and frankly better than most Republicans’ first terms as well,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a defense expert at the Brookings Institution.
Actions speak louder than words
To hear Obama tell it during his first year in office, his presidency would be defined by peace efforts and reconciliation.
However, under Obama’s watch, the United States has stepped up unmanned drone strikes against terrorist targets in Pakistan and Yemen, showing a willingness to extend the war on terrorism beyond the borders of Afghanistan and Iraq. The president went against many of his own advisers by launching airstrikes against Libya in March. While setting target dates for troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, Obama has weathered the worst days of that war. This month, he ordered about 100 U.S. troops into central Africa to help put an end to atrocities by the Lord’s Resistance Army.
The triumphs and tragedies have come fast and furious. At Fort Campbell in early May, Obama met many of the Special Forces members who raided bin Laden’s lair in Pakistan. At Dover Air Force Base in early August, he saluted 30 fallen troops whose helicopter crashed in Afghanistan.
“He has had to make a very difficult set of decisions that only a commander in chief has to make about the use of force,” says Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. “You experience the extraordinary achievements of our military. At the same time, you are confronted with the extraordinary sacrifice.”
Obama’s approach to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has won support among many defense experts. By ending the unpopular combat mission in Iraq and vastly reducing the U.S. presence there, he enabled the Pentagon to focus its efforts and resources on the more popular war in Afghanistan.
“I give him credit for more carefully defining what we’re trying to do militarily,” says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
That careful definition has led the Pentagon to cancel numerous weapons systems to limit defense spending. But Obama has sought small increases each year despite the need to reduce the federal budget deficit.
Liberals, conservatives still upset
Many of the same analysts who credit Obama for maintaining a strong national defense predict it won’t help him much in 2012.
Conservatives aren’t likely to be swayed. They say the United States has lost respect by seeking to engage Iran, setting deadlines for troop withdrawals in Afghanistan, not standing fully behind Israel and insisting on multilateralism rather than asserting American supremacy.
“Getting bin Laden and the drone strikes in general are helpful, but more as a prophylactic for the president,” says Peter Wehner, who worked for the past three Republican presidents. “It helps prevent further erosion for him, rather than wins him votes.”
Although the threats to defense spending over the coming decade are dictated by bipartisan deficit-reduction efforts, Obama has argued for savings while some Republicans support increases.
“The hard-liners will always feel as if Obama has been soft on our enemies,” says Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the pro-defense Lexington Institute. “But you can’t come to that conclusion looking at the way he’s spent money or the way he’s deployed forces. They’re reacting to the tone of the administration rather than to the substance of what he’s actually done.”