The Three Wartime Instincts Obama Lacks

Last month, as the war in Afghanistan entered its ninth year, it became clear that President Obama lacks certain requisite instincts necessary for a wartime commander. There are three leadership flaws in particular.

The first is Obama’s disconcerting tendency to distrust the operational capabilities of the United States military. It is now ironclad history that Obama was wrong on the Iraq surge. “It is clear at this point that we cannot, through putting more troops or maintaining the presence that we have, expect that somehow the situation [in Iraq] is going to improve,” then-Senator Obama said in October 2006, three months prior to the surge. “I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq are going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse,” Obama said once the surge was announced, later insisting that the new strategy would “not prove to be one that changes the dynamics significantly.”

The rest, as they say, is history. A new and comprehensive military-diplomatic strategy, now singularly known as “the surge,” was spearheaded by Ambassador Crocker, along with Gens. Petraeus and Odierno. Together, the new war team oversaw a reinforcement of soldiers and Marines into Iraq. Their mission? To leave their bases, walk the streets, and protect the Iraqi population from insurgent violence; to connect with the populace and form anti-terrorist alliances with the locals.

Spectacularly, that is precisely what happened. Sunni Iraqis came into the political fold and Shiite warlords disappeared into isolation. Anbari tribes flipped on al-Qaeda and drove the foreign jihadists out of Iraq itself. Cities were secured and provinces were pacified. Violence plummeted and casualties -- U.S. and Iraqi, civilian and military alike -- decreased almost exponentially. Insurgent attacks, bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations, which were once daily occurrences, became dispersed and infrequent. Ethnic strife was tamed; civil war was averted. The Iraq war was, miraculously and ever so slowly, coming to an end -- and most consequentially, a successful and peaceful end.

Had Obama gotten his way in 2006-07, none of this would have happened. Iraq today would have fragmented, imploding under the weight of Iranian-stoked sectarianism and Salafist-incited civil destruction. The United States would have lost and there would have been both genocidal and generational costs to pay. Yet during the Democratic primaries, Obama, seeking to outflank Clinton on her political left, treated Iraq with utter insouciance. Iraq, after all, was the war of “choice,” the bad “unnecessary” war to Afghanistan’s “good war” and “war of necessity.”

Obama parsed words throughout the entirety of the campaign. Even after all objective observers came to the conclusion that the surge was having tangible and positive effects on conditions in Iraq, Obama was still saying, “My assessment is that the surge has not worked,” long after everyone else concluded otherwise. Why was this so? Sure, Obama occasionally gave credit to the military, but he never put the military’s successes in context of the big picture, for that would compel him to divulge he was wrong. It was as if Obama was too proud to admit that the U.S. military actually accomplished what he initially thought they could not. To do so would have played right into Senator McCain’s hands, and that was a political price Barack Obama, the ambitious upstart, would never pay.

President Obama is repeating the same symptoms today in regards to Afghanistan.