Belaboring the Obvious

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Greenwald has a good deal to say...

... about Obama's most recent decision to withhold politically embarrassing torture photos two weeks after affirming he would release them. Greenwald's generally correct, especially as regards the general practice of secrecy in government and its reception by the general public. However, it seems to me that Obama's actions, generally, suggest something else at work that may have some import in assessing the modern Presidency.

Oddly, perhaps due to his generally heightened assessment of his own self-importance and overall arrogance, George W. Bush was the most candid President in recent memory about the ways in which war enhanced a president's stature. We all recall his own and the press' references to him as a "war president" and the interminably wrong--and wrong-headed--insistence of the press in referring to him as the "commander-in-chief of the nation," and his own proclamations that he was going to be a war president, which would increase his "political capital" and ensure him a "successful Presidency."

To be sure, that's not the way things turned out. In Bush's case--in large part due to his obstinance and obdurance--war, torture, crony capitalism, environmental decay and a neglect borne of a fierce determination to prove Reagan's maxim that government can't solve people's problems all served to mangle his reputation. While those wounds were largely self-inflicted, Bush was still defining something that presidents believe, but which very likely isn't true, post-WWII.

Bush's linkage of war to "political capital" may well be a holdover notion from the days of FDR. FDR did, indeed, achieve four terms on the strength of his prosecution of his war, but, let's recall a little history after that time. Truman's interposition of U.S. soldiers into the Korean war was highly unpopular, and was one of the factors in the Democrats' loss of the 1952 election. Deepening U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the highly publicized self-immolation of Buddhist monks protesting the Diem regime's policies and the uncertain complicity of the U.S. in the assassination of Diem and his brother all dogged Kennedy's reputation, which, otherwise, enjoyed considerable popularity with the general public. Johnson's stolid determination to widen a war already deemed unwinnable in the secret assessments of the Pentagon was his political undoing. Nixon's further secret expansion of the war into Cambodia eventually prompted some of the largest single-day political protests in the nation's history and confirmed the suspicions of many that Nixon could not be trusted, and generated the first, halting efforts in Congress to end the war in Vietnam.

Reagan's war on Grenada was largely seen as a defensive PR effort after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, and, with his emphasis on defending the island's freedom (and U.S. medical students) from Cuban construction workers, a last gasp from the old cold warrior. Moreover, Grenada did little to shield Reagan from criticism about his initial lies as Iran-Contra unfolded. Had there been any genuine political will in Congress at the time, Reagan (and perhaps Bush's father, as well) would have been impeached.

Bush's father, whom the younger Bush has described as squandering the "political capital" gained by successive wars in Panama (denounced by the UN as an aggressive war) and in the Persian Gulf, nevertheless could not manage reelection in the face of an economic downturn after three years of continuing Reagan's failed economic policies.

Still, the myth of war and "political capital" persists. Clinton was reportedly incensed by Jimmy Carter's peace negotiations with the North Koreans, since he had been planning military action against them, and his use of NATO to bypass the UN in order to involve the U.S. in the former Yugoslavia and in Kosovo was not universally popular. Most importantly, Clinton's support as he left office had much more to do with the general state of the economy at the time than any perceived successes in war.

Which brings me to Obama and his approach to military affairs. It's quite possible that even pro-peace candidates can be caught up and captured by the lure of being seen in the lens of history as a great military leader. The temptation to act out that part--even in the face of overwhelming evidence that success is likely unattainable--may simply be too great. The political weight of the Pentagon within the White House is too often underestimated, and in an increasingly militaristic culture, takes on a stature well beyond its Constitutional limits. The desire of the military--as a matter of institutional pride--to "win" even unwinnable wars is a locomotive without brakes, and if the President is encouraged by the military to don Casey Jone's engineer's cap, he gets to preside over the train wreck.

Recently, on Democracy Now!, Howard Zinn was asked about Obama's escalation of the war in Afghanistan, and he replied, in part, by saying:

I was with a taxi driver from Afghanistan, and I always start up a conversation with taxi drivers, because they know more than most news commentators.... But he was from Afghanistan. And I said, “What do you think about Obama sending more troops to Afghanistan?” I didn’t tell him what my position was. He said, “We don’t need troops.” He said, “We need food and medicine.”

We ought to stop thinking that we must have military solutions to the problems that we face in the world. The solutions that we need are the solutions of dealing with sickness and disease and hunger. That’s fundamental. If you want to end terrorism— ...If you want to end terrorism, you have to stop being terrorists, which is what war is.

Ultimately, the myth of military prowess encourages presidents to self-exclude other, perhaps more sensible, voices. Any institution can succumb to the destructive tendencies of groupthink (as the younger Bush's White House more than amply illustrates), and the probability of that happening increases exponentially when a President tends to compartmentalize problems as either military in nature or not, if only because when he decides a problem is principally military in character, he must then depend upon the military for advice--advice which is always colored by the military's institutional pride.

That thinking tends to broaden the power of the military, which likely explains the number of decisions that Obama has made recently which run counter to both his campaign promises and expectations of his behavior once in office. His determination to keep secret torture photos, his continuation of Bush-era policies on state secrets privilege, his failure to address leaks from the Pentagon suggesting that the terms of the drawdown in Iraq may be unilaterally abrogated by the U.S. military, his willingness to adopt the Bush "bad apples have been prosecuted" meme which evades any discussion of widespread and systemic approval of torture in the upper reaches of the Pentagon's civilian and military management, the possibility of his maintaining Bush programs of indefinite detention and a restoration of Bush's military kangaroo courts all suggest that his attitudes on national security are increasingly influenced by self-serving military policy makers, rather than by firm notions of Constitutional propriety and rule of law.

[Late update] On the regular Friday segment of The News Hour's Lame Washington Pundits Pretending to Provide Left and Right Balance, Mark Shields sez:

But he just hasn't established his credentials yet as commander-in-chief. That's all. And I think that's what is a problem, I mean, not that he hasn't -- I agree with you, but the commander-in-chief credentials are important to establish. [my emphasis]

Yup. Right on cue.


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