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Washington Sketch: The perils of being commander in chief

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By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

First, the good news: President Obama will not be wearing a flight suit when he addresses the cadets at West Point on Tuesday night. Nor will he wear a bomber jacket with the presidential seal on the chest, nor even, the White House promises, a windbreaker with the word ARMY in big letters.

"You can count on no military garb," assures Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director.

Mission Accomplished? Not entirely.

One of the common complaints of George W. Bush's presidency was his tendency to politicize the military and turn troops into props. The man seemed to make more appearances before military audiences than Bob Hope did. But now Obama is antagonizing many in his party with an expected announcement that he is sending more troops to Afghanistan, and, to rub it in, he's making the announcement at one of Bush's favorite military locations: the U.S. Military Academy at West Point -- the very birthplace, seven years ago, of the Bush Doctrine.

Obama's fondness for audiences in uniform is not yet in the same category as his predecessor's. Beyond the infamous "Top Gun" landing aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, and the Thanksgiving turkey he served to troops in Iraq, Bush routinely used military-themed backdrops for his speeches: fighter jets, camouflage nets, American flags, military bands and, best of all, thousands of troops applauding or shouting "Hoo-ah" at the right moments.

Still, Obama's flirtation with military imagery should be of concern to his allies on the left, who are already unhappy with the hawkish direction his Afghanistan policy has taken. Already in his young presidency, the Nobel Peace Prize winner has addressed the troops at Osan air base in South Korea, Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, Naval Air Station Jacksonville in Florida, the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. (For different purposes, he also spoke at the memorial for shooting victims at Fort Hood and welcomed home the remains of troops at Dover Air Base.) The vice president and the first lady, in turn, have made the rounds at half a dozen other facilities.

Presidential addresses to the uniformed military were relatively rare before Bush. A tally by George Mason University found that in past years, presidents sometimes spoke to military groups only once (Bill Clinton in 1993, Richard Nixon in 1969), twice (Gerald Ford in 1974) or not at all (Ronald Reagan in 1985). But Bush gave "far more" such speeches, including 13 in 2005 alone.

The proliferation began in 2002, when Bush went to West Point for a June 1 speech to the cadets detailing the doctrine of preemptive war. Had Sarah Palin watched that speech, she would have avoided four of the most damaging words of the 2008 presidential campaign, uttered when ABC News's Charlie Gibson asked whether she agreed with the Bush Doctrine: "In what sense, Charlie?"

In the last days of his presidency, Bush returned to West Point for another speech, reminding everybody about his forgotten doctrine. By then, he had delivered dozens of speeches before crowds of soldiers and sailors under his command. At Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, he wore a bomber jacket and used Air Force One as his backdrop. At MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, he appeared in a hangar with fighter jets, flags, military banners and troops. Then, of course, came the aircraft carrier landing on an S-3B Viking, for which Bush trained in the White House swimming pool, and the premature "Mission Accomplished" banner.

On and on went the speeches to the troops: Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the Army War College, National Defense University, Fort Hood, Fort Bragg, the Air Force Academy. Even his second inauguration, in 2005, served as a vehicle for Bush to surround himself with all things military. As the televised speeches to military audiences became more frequent, so did the complaints of the opposition, which questioned the propriety of Bush attacking Democrats in front of the troops, who are not allowed to participate in political events while in uniform.

Predictably, the cry was picked up by the right after Obama took office and continued the practice of speeches to the troops. Two weeks ago, Fox News's Glenn Beck played an image of Obama speaking in front of uniformed soldiers and complained: "I'm sick of it, especially when it comes to the soldiers. They are not props."

But they are required to be loyal, and when their commander in chief talks, whether it's Bush or Obama, they salute. Or applaud. Or yell "Hoo-ah." And on Tuesday night, this military pageantry will only compound the sense on the left that Obama is not the man they thought he was.

In an open letter to Obama on his Web site Monday, liberal activist Michael Moore wrote that by increasing troops in Afghanistan, "you will do the worst possible thing you could do -- destroy the hopes and dreams so many millions have placed in you."

"With just one speech tomorrow night," Moore continued, "you will turn a multitude of young people who were the backbone of your campaign into disillusioned cynics. You will teach them what they've always heard is true -- that all politicians are alike."

The bomber jacket is definitely out for Tuesday night's speech. But with this kind of hostility from Obama's own supporters, maybe the White House should consider dressing him in camouflage?


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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