When it comes to their most-senior commander, the vets decisively prefer [President] George W. Bush to [President] Obama. Only a third approve of the way Obama is handling his job, and 42 percent of them think he has been a good commander in chief despite his decisions to bring troops home from Iraq, wind down the war in Afghanistan and increase resources for veterans. By contrast, nearly two-thirds of them think Bush, who launched both wars, was a good commander in chief.
We don’t know why their view of Obama is comparatively so negative. Maybe they believe his budget choices reflect that they are a lower priority than, say, universal pre-school. Perhaps, they see in his rush to remove all troops from Iraq, and possibly adopt the “zero option” for Afghanistan as well, that he lacks the will the retain the benefits they sacrificed to win. It could be that his wishy-washy approach to Syria or his unwillingness to deter aggressors like Vladimir Putin concerns them and makes the potential for hostilities even greater. Or it could be that, like my colleague Jackson Diehl, they understand that the president via his secretary of state “thanks to a profound misreading of the realities on the ground — was enabling the bad guys.”
How might the president improve his reputation among the troops, while doing himself some good with allies and foes alike on the world stage?
For one thing, the inexcusable and continual cutting of the defense budget should end. As we have pointed out, the president’s mealy-mouthed Quadrennial Defense Review should be redone to add some specific analysis of our threats and the recommended means of meeting those threats. Then the budget should be reprioritized to reflect the actual costs of defending U.S. interests.
Next, in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is time to stop assuring our foes of everything we are unwilling to do and instead devise a concrete strategy for securing the gains our fighting men and women obtained. That may mean providing aid and logistical support to Iraq to fend off Iranian influence. It will likely require a good deal more troops (although not engaged in combat) in Afghanistan and a more mature relationship with whoever emerges as the Afghan president.
It would also require a robust defense of our intelligence gathering, which anticipates not only attacks and plots against the homeland but against our troops around the world. We may be reaching a consensus between the White House and House proposals. The president should expedite this process and not be shy in defending the NSA. It is time for him to take on the hero-worship on the left (and far-right) of Edward Snowden, who betrayed his country, endangered all Americans including our fighting men and women and now resides in Russia where he is able to share goodness knows what about American intelligence capabilities with his host.
And finally, it is time to install a respected and capable secretary of defense with a competent national security team to exclude political hacks from national security decision-making and to become realistic about the state of the world. As Jackson said of the Middle East: “[T]he alternative [to John Kerry’s approach] is to address the Middle East as it really is. Recognize that Egypt’s generals are reinstalling a dictatorship and that U.S. aid therefore cannot be resumed; refocus on resuscitating and defending Egypt’s real democrats. Admit that the Assad regime won’t quit unless it is defeated on the battlefield and adopt a strategy to bring about that defeat. Concede that a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace isn’t possible now and look for more modest ways to build the groundwork for a future Palestinian state.” And as for Russia, it is time to stop trying to trash talk Russia as a mere regional power and denying the similarities to the Cold War (wherein we stood up to bullies and on the side of free peoples).
If the president does all this, maybe he would earn the support of the troops and the trust of allies and the respect of enemies. Granted, he’s no George Bush, but this would be a start.