Obama's Strategic Vision

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Maybe the symbolism of Barack Obama giving a major speech this week at Berlin's Victory Column -- a 19th-century monument to Prussia's military triumphs -- isn't as incongruous at it might seem. After all, it was Frederick the Great -- the 18th-century Prussian monarch who transformed his kingdom into the dominant German state -- who once advised his generals, "He who would defend everything ends up defending nothing."

You can't deploy everywhere in strength, Frederick was saying, and that's a lesson Obama seems to understand a lot better than John McCain does. At a news conference in Jordan yesterday, Obama reiterated his belief that Afghanistan, not Iraq, is "the central front in the war against terrorism" and that confronting that reality requires drawing down the number of U.S. forces stationed in Iraq.

Obama has been making this case for many months. But it was not until last week that McCain acknowledged that our war in Afghanistan was not going well and would require additional forces. Unlike Obama, however, McCain does not favor reducing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq by any timetable and has yet to stipulate where our overcommitted military will find the forces to send to Afghanistan.

Good thing McCain wasn't one of Frederick's generals. He would have been cashiered.

McCain's campaign has been knocked off stride -- not that it was ever entirely on stride -- by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's endorsement of Obama's withdrawal timetable. Campaigning in Maine on Monday, the Arizona senator tried the kitchen sink approach in attacking his rival, saying that Obama had been "completely wrong" about Iraq and the surge, that the disposition of U.S. forces in Iraq couldn't be set by a timetable but had to comport to conditions on the ground, and, for good measure, that Obama had "no military experience whatsoever."

But in his insistence that conditions on the ground should determine the rate of withdrawal of U.S. forces, McCain omits one key condition: the willingness of the Iraqi people and their government to keep those forces in their country. If Iraqis' elected leaders say it's time for us to go, and the U.S. generals there disagree, whose counsel do we heed?

Appearing at the Council on Foreign Relations in 2004, McCain was asked this very question -- what we should do if a sovereign Iraqi government asked us to leave, even if Iraq was not yet secure. "I don't see how we could stay," he answered then, "when our whole emphasis and policy has been based on turning the Iraqi government over to the Iraqi people."

Now that the Iraqi government has expressed its clear preference for a departure of U.S. forces along the timeline suggested by Obama, however, McCain argues that the decisive judgment should not be theirs but our field generals'. The person who should determine the course and duration of our mission is Gen. David Petraeus.

So much for the sovereignty thing. So much for rehabilitating post-Bush America in the eyes of the world.

And what of McCain's assertion that Obama "has no military experience whatsoever"? It's incontestably true, of course. What's more germane, and clearer with each passing day, however, is that Obama's capacities as a national strategist -- the most important qualification for a commander in chief -- far outshine McCain's. Victory, in McCain's view, is the result of will and fortitude -- an understandable belief for anyone who survived half a decade as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Had we been more steadfast in Vietnam, he believes, we could have won. Likewise in Iraq, even though the rifts in that nation are not ultimately susceptible to foreign military might.

But fortitude and will are only part of the formula for success. A good president has to know which battles to fight militarily and which diplomatically, which battles are primary and which secondary. By these measures, Obama -- who always viewed the Iraq fight as a distraction from hunting down al-Qaeda and who understands that peace in Iraq depends on a political accommodation among Iraqi groups -- is clearly the better strategist.

Military experience isn't an infallible guide to who might make the better commander. Jefferson Davis, after all, graduated from West Point, served with distinction (and with the rank of colonel) in the Mexican War and was secretary of war in the Franklin Pierce administration. Abraham Lincoln served roughly three months in a volunteer militia during the Black Hawk War and never saw action, and he was a vocal congressional opponent of the Mexican War. But Davis had no aptitude for national strategy during the Civil War, while Lincoln emerged as the North's master strategist. That's not to say that Obama is a budding Lincoln and McCain a second Jeff Davis. But by the Frederick the Great standard, Obama already looks to be the smarter commander.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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