One Year Later Obama and the military
One year later: How Obama has learned to become a wartime commander in chief
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Through a haze of grief, Dona Griffin watched President Obama turn toward her, opening his arms to offer a hug.
A midnight knock on her door the previous evening had brought her from her home in Terre Haute, Ind., to the morgue at Dover Air Force Base and into a presidential embrace. The body of her son, Army Sgt. Dale R. Griffin, and those of 17 other Americans killed in Afghanistan waited in the frigid hold of a military cargo plane standing on the runway.
Obama had flown in by helicopter from Washington. Nearing a decision about whether to send thousands more troops to the battlefield, he wanted to witness the homecoming of dead soldiers.
The visit was part of an eclectic self-education program Obama has undertaken to become a wartime commander in chief. He has emerged as a president uncomfortable with the swagger and rhetoric traditionally used to rally troops, favoring an image of public solemnity as he wrestles with the moral consequences of war. Republicans have criticized him for being reticent in the face of crisis and for taking too long to set strategy.
But even as Obama has sought to convey an image of a deliberate leader preoccupied with the battle's human toll, he has used military power at least as aggressively as his Republican predecessor did during the waning years of his administration. In his first year in office, Obama has set in motion plans to triple the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan; expanded operations against U.S. enemies in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen; and, in one early instance of his willingness to use deadly force, authorized Special Forces snipers to kill three Somali pirates holding an American hostage.
The politician who brashly opposed the Iraq invasion has had more than 443 U.S. service members die while serving under his command. On a chilly October evening, in a stark waiting room at Dover, he leaned toward Dona Griffin less than 24 hours after she learned that her 29-year-old son had been killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.
"I found myself with my hand in his, and he was asking if there's anything he could do," she recalled. "I put my left hand behind his left elbow, and leaned forward, and whispered in his ear, 'Mr. President, please don't leave our troops hanging.' "
Hoops with troops
In the fall of 2002, as the Bush administration rallied the country for an invasion of Iraq, Obama, then an Illinois state senator, appeared at an antiwar demonstration in Chicago's Federal Plaza.
"I'm not opposed to all wars," he told a crowd made up of many who were. "I'm opposed to dumb wars."
Obama never served in the military, and early in the speech he cited his maternal grandfather as a kind of surrogate. A World War II veteran who "fought in Patton's Army," Stanley Dunham embodied for him the necessity to fight those who will not yield to anything but force.
"I think he came to office with a sophisticated understanding of the use of power and when it is necessary," said David Axelrod, a senior adviser who began working with Obama the year he delivered the "dumb war" speech. "What no one can understand before coming to the office, though, is the gravity that surrounds those decisions."
Obama prepared early. As a candidate, he made several unannounced visits to retired Gen. Colin L. Powell at his Alexandria office, seeking advice about leadership and command from perhaps the most famous soldier of his generation. Powell had worked at the highest levels of government, in uniform and as a civilian, and Obama trusted him to offer counsel free of partisan prejudice.