One year later: How Obama has learned to become a wartime commander in chief

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 19, 2010; A01

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.

"He understood that this was something he'd never done before and that he'd have to learn it on the job," said Powell, who said Obama has "done well as commander in chief." "He was also confident in his ability to surround himself with people who could help him learn it."

On the campaign trail, Obama was perceived as vulnerable on national security, which his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), sought to make his own. The son and grandson of Navy admirals, McCain was a war hero whom most Americans could envision as commander in chief.

Obama, a first-term U.S. senator of cool temperament, was harder to imagine in the role. In July 2008, he stepped off a plane at a U.S. staging base in Kuwait for his first encounter with troops in a theater of war as a possible next president. It was an opportunity to put some doubts to rest.

Obama was tired from the long flight, and a hip injury limited a basketball game to an informal shoot-around session. But the Senate staff members accompanying him were stunned when, on arriving at the gym, they discovered that more than 1,000 service members had packed the stands to watch. Some of Obama's aides worried that a poor showing would yield images of Commander Air Ball.

"Just make a shot or two, and that'll be all right," Antony J. Blinken, then the director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff and now Vice President Biden's national security adviser, told Obama.

"Oh, I'll make the shot," he answered.

He squared up behind the three-point arc for a jump shot that zipped through the net. The troops erupted, and a potentially awkward encounter ended in a moment of schoolyard glory, with future commander and troops appearing largely as equals. As president, months later, he would take a more paternal view of his relationship with his forces.

A change of mind

Upon taking office, Obama moved quickly to imprint his view of war on the vast national security apparatus, drawing criticism from conservatives in doing so. Within days, he banned the use of torture in interrogation and ordered the closing of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by Jan. 22, 2010 -- a deadline that will be missed.

The executive orders were part of a review of the Bush-era protocols that framed the "global war on terror," a term Obama immediately discouraged his advisers from using because he said it overstated al-Qaeda's strength. To the former constitutional law lecturer, the refinements in language and policy strengthened the moral argument for war.

Obama, in his new role, disregarded the advice of his military commanders and heeded the demands of civil libertarians after a campaign in which he promised a more transparent government.

Over the initial objection of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, the president allowed the release in April of the Bush-era memos that served as the legal justification for what were called "enhanced interrogation methods." That same month, the administration announced that it would comply with a court order demanding the release of as many as 2,000 photographs depicting prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and other U.S.-run detention sites.

Gen. Ray Odierno, his commander in Iraq, opposed the decision, and Obama viewed a sampling of the photos. He changed his mind, saying that making the pictures public would "further inflame anti-American opinion and put our troops in danger."

"There are more than 200,000 Americans who are serving in harm's way, and I have a solemn responsibility for their safety as commander in chief," Obama said in a speech at the National Archives explaining his decision.

Civil libertarians, with whom Obama had once sided, felt betrayed. Republicans saw the decisions as an unworkable compromise. Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute within minutes of Obama's address, former vice president Richard B. Cheney said, "The administration seems to pride itself on searching for some kind of middle ground in policies addressing terrorism."

He added: "But in the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half exposed."

Military relationships

In May, Obama fired his commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David D. McKiernan, becoming the first president since Harry S. Truman to relieve a commanding general in a theater of war. He acted largely on advice from Gates, and a senior adviser described the firing as "a significant moment" in making the battle his own.

Obama replaced him with Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who outlined a plan calling for vastly more resources at a time of rising deficits and public opposition to the war at home.

The general also began selling his plan publicly before Obama had carried out what would become a three-month strategy review. During an appearance in London, McChrystal said a change in his strategy that would require fewer troops and a more narrowly defined mission would be "shortsighted."

A day later, Obama, who was in Denmark pitching Chicago's Olympic bid, summoned the general for a meeting there. The two had met in person only once previously, and Obama's aides said he did not use the brief meeting to criticize McChrystal for his public remarks, even in the privacy of Air Force One.

A senior administration official said the president was "frustrated" by the military's public appeal, but Obama, unwilling to jeopardize relations with his Afghanistan commander, kept those feelings private.

Obama intended a more formal, arm's-length relationship with his generals than the one favored by George W. Bush, who spoke frequently with his then-commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, even though several officers were above him at the time.

"This is a president who is going to respect the chain of command," said another senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the president's thinking. "He feels like it is the most efficient way to receive information and maintain control of the process."

Commander to troops

During White House deliberations on national security, Obama has kept his own counsel as he has made decisions, according to his aides and senior officials. But this methodical style, during the fall review of the Afghanistan strategy, provoked criticism -- mainly from Republicans -- that he was dithering.

Obama's Democratic Party worried that a novice commander in chief would succumb to the wishes of his generals at the expense of his wide-ranging domestic reform agenda, which was already threatened by the rising costs of war.

Aides said Obama looked to President John F. Kennedy's relationship with the military, in particular how he managed the Cuban missile crisis when his military leaders urged a quick strike on the island, an act he resisted. One senior adviser said Obama valued Kennedy's "think before you shoot" ethos.

He also drew from the experience of GOP presidents. "What he took from Eisenhower is that everything you do as commander in chief must be seen for how it affects your other goals," a senior administration official said.

Those goals were also threatened by events outside the Situation Room. As reports of a mass shooting at Fort Hood, Tex., arrived on Nov. 5, Obama worried chiefly about morale in the exhausted ranks. The largest Army post in the country had churned with overseas deployments for eight years.

That Maj. Nidal M. Hasan was Muslim and that he allegedly opened fire at a staging area for departing troops, killing 13 people, complicated the message Obama was called on to deliver to an angry community. For months as president, he had described Islam as a religion of peace.

Under a late-fall Texas sun, a breeze lightly flapping the American and unit flags behind him, Obama eulogized each of the dead by name. As he spoke, he had already decided that tens of thousands of additional troops would be needed in Afghanistan, and in the cadences of a slow march, he ended with a tribute meant for the military more broadly.

"We need not look to the past for greatness," he said, "because it is before our very eyes."

The speech, one aide said, was intended to be a message "from the commander in chief directly to his troops."

The next day was Veterans Day, and Obama spent a rain-soaked morning at Arlington National Cemetery, where, following tradition, he laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns. He then strayed from script to walk, umbrella-less, among the bleach-white headstones of Section 60, where the dead from Afghanistan and Iraq are buried. He talked with the few family members he found there.

Hundreds of miles away in Terre Haute, the town gathered to bury Dale Griffin, the young sergeant whose remains Obama had helped receive at Dover more than a week earlier.

"He opened himself up to understand," Dona Griffin said. "I respect that. Some lessons are harder than others and we'd rather avoid them. But I was thankful he was there."


Traveling in Asia over the next nine days, Obama began to consider a pair of seemingly incongruous speeches that he was scheduled to give by the end of the year.

In the first, he planned to announce an escalation of the war in Afghanistan and a date for a withdrawal to begin. In the next, he would accept the Nobel Peace Prize, which he had sheepishly declared earlier that he did not deserve. He began to think of the two, in the words of a senior adviser, as "bookends."

One evening on Air Force One, Obama called to his cabin chief speechwriter Jon Favreau and Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, who had been helping draft his foreign policy speeches since 2007. He wanted to talk about his Nobel lecture, as the acceptance speech is known.

"He said he didn't want to give the same speech on nonproliferation, climate change and other issues associated with the prize," Rhodes recalled. "He wanted to step back and give a speech that wasn't just of this moment in time but would last in history."

Obama asked them to prepare for him a list of readings that Rhodes described as a "modern-day take on war and peace -- from Churchill to King." He also asked for writings by theologians such as Saint Thomas Aquinas and Reinhold Niebuhr on the morality of war.

On his return to Washington, Obama worked through the final details of his Afghanistan strategy and chose the U.S. Military Academy at West Point as the venue for his announcement. The audience of cadets was the future officers corps in Afghanistan, and his advisers said he wanted to speak to them directly.

"He was very clear to me that we were not going to beat our chests in the speech," Rhodes said. "He told me we were not going to treat war as a glorious endeavor to be celebrated."

With his Dover visit still vivid, Obama told the cadets that "as your commander in chief, I owe you a mission that is clearly defined and worthy of your service."

"I know that this decision asks even more of you -- a military that, along with your families, has already borne the heaviest of all burdens," he said, and afterward, waded into the crowd of gray tunics to shake hands and talk.

In the following days, the president had his staff summon some clergy members for a meeting. He wanted them to hear the reasoning behind his Afghanistan strategy. And he wanted his staff to solicit their opinions on the ethical implications of war as he prepared his "bookend" speech in Oslo, scheduled for the following week.

Peg Chemberlin, president of the National Council of Churches, was among about 25 religious leaders who assembled at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building the first week of December. She described the hours-long session as "more than just a briefing, but a discussion" on the morality of war. White House staff members took notes for the president.

Obama wrote his Nobel address, which he delivered Dec. 10 under the vaulted ceilings of Oslo's City Hall, around the theme of "just war."

"I think this is a president who sees a theological element in his work," Chemberlin said. "Would I have liked to have been more deeply and more often involved in his thinking on this? Yes. But we were happy to be a part of it when we were."

During vacation, a wait

Throughout the year, Obama has tried at home and overseas to define the country's enemy in a way that preserves the viability of his outreach to the Islamic world.

He warned in Oslo that "no holy war can ever be a just war," citing causes from the Crusades through the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to make his case. Just over two weeks later, on Christmas Day, a 23-year-old Muslim man from Nigeria allegedly tried to bomb a Northwest Airlines plane as it approached Detroit.

On vacation in Hawaii at the time, Obama took several days before addressing the nation. By waiting, he had hoped to deprive al-Qaeda of a public relations victory of a presidential overreaction. To his critics, Obama was absent as commander in chief when the country needed reassurance.

Behind the scenes, the United States twice that month -- on Dec. 17 and 24 -- provided intelligence and other assistance to Yemeni forces battling the same branch of al-Qaeda that had sent the Nigerian.

Back in Washington, Obama chastised senior officials for the lapses that could allow someone to come so close to bringing down an airliner. In contrast with his quiet handling of McChrystal, a White House aide emphasized to reporters that Obama had called the oversights "a screw-up." In public, Obama spoke angrily about "systemic failures," and while he criticized his intelligence agencies for faulty analysis, he declared that "ultimately, the buck stops with me."

"We are at war," he said.

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