How does Obama stack up as a military commander?

Ken Allard Retired U.S. Army Colonel
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Has the killing of Osama bin Laden transformed President Obama from a beleaguered Oval Office occupant into a true commander-in-chief? The chattering classes of morning TV certainly think so. Some even suggest that his prowess as the cool, supremely in-control orchestrator of an American military triumph gives Barack Obama the cache that may get him re-elected in 2012.

Maybe so, but euphoria fades quickly in American politics, especially when more demanding tests may lie ahead, like conflict in Iran or even North Korea. Perspective is important too, because that daring Special Forces raid into Pakistan was only a squad-level action, however complex its planning and execution. So how does Obama stack up as a military commander if victory requires corps, campaigns and grand strategy?

The record there is considerably more mixed, like the marginal student who unexpectedly aces the mid-term but may coast unprepared into a much tougher final exam. Libya is the obvious example, now descending into a protracted and bloody stalemate. Each day brings more bombings by NATO forces, less reference to UN resolutions and fewer conceivable tie-ins to any American strategic interest. Even more worrying: the crisply decisive chief executive of the Pakistan raid seemed curiously indecisive and detached as the Libyan boil festered for weeks. When he finally decided to intervene, Mr. Obama (or was it Secretary of State Clinton?) chose only limited means for uncertain ends — airpower deployed on a “humanitarian mission” to protect the rebel enclave of Benghazi. If you want to take Vienna, Napoleon famously warned, then go ahead and take Vienna. The same principle of decisive force applies equally well to Gaddafi or Osama: When you shoot at a king, then kill him.

Faced with such contradictions, leaders from Vladimir Putin to Donald Trump must now be wondering which Obama will show up next. Before taking office, it is doubtful that this president ever seriously pondered the basic questions of war and statecraft. Why would a lawyer and community organizer ever wonder about which intellectual and personal traits distinguish a Lincoln or a Churchill from the also-rans of history?

Professor Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins examined exactly those questions in his modern classic, Supreme Command, published shortly after 9/11. War is a very uncertain business in which real leadership lies in discovering that the experts may be “even more wrong than oneself.” Far from being unprecedented, the uncertainties of the War on Terror are actually as old as war itself. The key to effective statesmanship: finding the telling details that identify which “theory of victory” might work in the changing mosaic of war.

Lincoln regularly drove his generals crazy. He not only demanded strategies to break Southern will but also pressed them to adopt repeating rifles. After Gettysburg, George Meade was shocked that Lincoln expected him to annihilate Lee’s survivors rather than shooing them back across the Potomac. Meade was later superseded “by an alcoholic soldier from the West (Grant) whose only virtue seemed to be his sheer determination.”

In Pakistan, President Obama showed commendable attention to detail by demanding secrecy as well as a raiding force large enough to fight its way out if things went wrong. But then last week he visited El Paso, pointedly laughing off concerns over border security. Yet just across the border in Juarez, Mexican authorities uncovered an arsenal of cartel weaponry: automatic weapons, grenades, weapons, even anti-aircraft guns. Irony of ironies: the discovery was made on the very same day that President Obama gave the go-ahead for the attack on Osama.

Whether you believe that border violence is an over-rated local problem or the precursor to a new national nightmare, this is one of those telling details that can often decide presidencies and national destinies.

Colonel (Ret.) Ken Allard rose from draftee to Dean of the National War College. A former military analyst for NBC News, he is a prolific writer on national security issues.