KRISINGER: Reconsidering Obama as commander in chief

This time, former Pentagon brass have a record of failure to evaluate

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When President Obama returned to Chicago recently to kick off his 2012 re-election bid, his campaign staff was busy setting up its headquarters in a downtown high-rise near Grant Park - the place for his election-night celebration in November 2008 - to begin what could be a $1 billion campaign.

Those Chicago sites also are not far from where then-Sen. Barack Obama rolled out 10 retired admirals and generals for a news conference in March 2008 to counter claims by his opponent, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, that he had not “crossed the threshold” to serve as commander in chief. In fact, the event would further address Mrs. Clinton’s challenge of which candidate was better able to “answer the 3 a.m. phone call” that had quickly entered the 2008 presidential race lexicon.

In offering their advice and support, the generals and admirals were noted in the event’s press release as “recognizing Obama’s judgment to oppose the war in Iraq before it began, his respect for the Constitution and rule of law, his leadership on behalf of America’s service personnel, and his ability to conduct the diplomacy necessary to restore America’s standing in the world.” During the flag-draped event, several, such as retired four-star Gen. Merrill A. “Tony” McPeak, a former Air Force chief of staff, stepped forward to say they were “comfortable with his ability to lead the military.”

Once the Democratic nominee, candidate Obama still had national security and two ongoing wars to deal with as hot-button election issues. So it became politically imperative that Mr. Obama obtain the endorsement of retired but still influential military brass to burnish his national security credentials for the run against Sen. John McCain, the Navy veteran, five-year Vietnam prisoner of war and defense hawk. His campaign eventually would come to use the names of more than 70 retired generals and admirals from all four services to apply a veneer of credibility to his objectively thin resume on defense and diplomacy.

If pressed, each flag officer likely would have said he supported Mr. Obama for his own reasons. In reality though, most were driven not so much by their confidence in Mr. Obama, but their disagreement with the George W. Bush administration, including the Donald H. Rumsfeld-led Pentagon, over the Iraq war and other decisions related to the overall war on terror. As representative of the group, one general was quoted to say he thought the country was “on the wrong course,” while another said he thought the country really needed “a fresh approach to national security.” Advice and backing from these senior officers helped propel Mr. Obama to a victory over Mrs. Clinton, the defeat of Mr. McCain and the appearance of a more passionate and worldly critic of Mr. Bush’s national security policy and worldview.

Whether Mr. Obama took or acted on the group’s “advice” can be debated. But as the 2012 race begins in earnest, his record on the Bush-Cheney war-on-terror issues that he would demagogue, “reset” and promise to overturn, curtail or end as a candidate must collectively confound the group. In a little more than two years, Mr. Obama has kept the Guantanamo detention center open, embraced military tribunals, surged in Afghanistan, expanded the use of Predator drones, stuck to the troop withdrawal from Iraq even while discussing U.S. troops remaining there, left the Patriot Act largely alone, continued renditions, used preventive detentions and suspended habeas corpus in terrorist cases.

Aside from his anti-Bush-Cheney litany, Mr. Obama has - among a raft of issues - also engaged the United States in a third conflict with less strategic interest and with less consent from Congress than President Bush had on Iraq. Both Iran and North Korea still flaunt their nuclear weapon programs. Israel is shunted aside as an ally in the Middle East for outreach to the Muslim world, while European allies similarly are dismissed to “reset” relations with Russia. Mr. Obama bans the descriptors “radical Islam” and “war on terror,” but we are attacked by the likes of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan and the failed Times Square bomber inside our borders. We announce when we will leave Afghanistan without setting terms for that departure. Now, the Pentagon budget appears a target for solving the nation’s economic problems.

As senior officers, these admirals and generals all sat on the promotion boards of other officers to decide on their potential and suitability to serve in a higher rank. Basic military promotion board philosophy is to dispassionately evaluate the potential of the individual to serve in a higher grade based on his record of preparation, past performance and results. Considering Mr. Obama’s performance and track record on national security, defense and diplomacy in a like manner - particularly given his 2008 campaign promises and rhetoric - would the group “promote” him again in 2012? Who among them will step forward to advise him again, and for what motivations? Will they let their names be used again?

Chris J. Krisinger is retired colonel in the U.S. Air Force.

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