- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Answering the campaign slogan “yes we can,” Americans today inaugurate a bright and articulate young man as our new president, but a man who has never run anything other than a small Senate staff and the various campaigns to get himself elected.

Nevertheless, and without being judgmental about his thin leadership resume, what does history tell us about Barack Obama’s - and therefore our own - chances for success? While this is a revealing exercise, it goes without saying that - no matter what the conclusions may be - our new president will need all the political skill and energy he has, and be lucky as well.

The recent past — George H.W. Bush (Bush 41) was arguably - on paper at least - the “best-qualified” president we may ever have had. After all, he was a dashing World War II aviator, a successful businessman, a member of Congress, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, director of the CIA and a two-term vice president under Ronald Reagan.

Yet - in both real time and retrospect - he proved no more effective as president than was Jimmy Carter, the affable Southern governor elected in a backlash to the Watergate scandal, and who always seemed “over his head” in the job.

The lesson? Someone who looks very qualified can turn out to be an underwhelming performer. Nevertheless, George Bush (41) would have probably been re-elected had Republicans been able to contain the third party challenge of Ross Perot. Many believe this handed the election to Bill Clinton, a young Southern governor who sounded a little like Elvis, bit his lip and said that he felt our pain.

Nevertheless - and to the dismay of many liberals - Mr. Clinton put together a centrist administration, emerging as a moderate and taking full advantage of the fracture on the Republican side. But remember, as a state governor Mr. Clinton had a modicum of “executive” experience before coming to Washington. And, he would be remembered as a far more effective president had he been able to demonstrate the personal character to lead.

After eight years of Mr. Clinton, we had a choice between Al Gore, a Washington political careerist, and George “W.” Bush, another state governor. And, in a squeaker of an election that went to the Supreme Court, Mr. Bush won despite getting slightly less popular vote than Mr. Gore.

OK, this can happen with our state-centric Electoral College system, but now what? The “what” turned out to be an awkward continuation of the Clinton administration, with significant parts of the foreign and national security structure, people and policies simply “carried over” - to the head-shaking dismay of many conservatives.

However - and as if taken from an action movie scenario - Sept. 11, 2001, was literally dropped upon us, a crisis situation made to order for our brand new president to “rise to the occasion” and emerge as the great leader of our time - a truly “Reaganesque” figure, if you will.

How to do it? Right after Sept. 11, we probably had 90 to 120 days to do about anything we wanted to in response to the attack, and the world held its breath for us to do it. We didn’t have to ask anybody for “permission” to respond and it seemed simple enough: Bomb the hell out of the territory of the terrorists - that would have been whatever “contested” parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan we decided to hit; on the ground, conduct large-scale sweeps of “disputed border territory” in joint operations with the Pakistanis, who would have - at least then - cooperated with us, whether they wanted to or not. Had we done this, Osama bin Laden and most of his senior people would be long dead, as would be thousands of other “real” terrorists and fighters - and so would have expired many of the dangerous covert relationships and associations required for their continued existence. But we didn’t.

Instead, we took a painfully long time to decide to go to war against a far more generalized threat - Iraq - pursuant to a flakey-worded United Nations mandate that was leveraged on the existence of weapons of mass destruction. And the war we so deliberately chose turned into a bad dream.

Even assuming we had no other choice but to invade Iraq (a highly debatable proposition) we had only one practical option after we did it: Knock off Saddam Hussein, his sons and the Ba’athist leadership cabal. Then, take down whatever WMD infrastructure we found and get the heck out of there - at least the part of our operation that was manpower intensive - leaving behind a few strategically placed bases in the region. But we didn’t.

Why? We should have learned long ago - by our painful “Vietnam experience” - that Americans simply don’t have the patience for long-term (and manpower-intensive) military involvements in distant political struggles. But we didn’t.

To the contrary: It took our leadership five years to figure out we needed a “surge” (i.e., even more manpower) to establish postwar security in Iraq. And, what about our “democracy” policy there? Come on, the various religious and tribal factions don’t want anything to do with democracy because it requires compromise - and they can’t do that anymore than anyone else in the region. These aren’t Republicans and Democrats, these are people who have sworn to kill each other - and have taken turns doing it over the past few thousand years.

So, does it really matter - or has it really mattered - the level of “executive experience” our new president brings to the job? Maybe not, because we are so often driven by events far more powerful than the leadership skills - or lack thereof - of our president, whether newly elected or not. Witness the current financial crisis, born of much longer-term economic policies, deeply embedded by both political parties - like long-forgotten land mines - in the strata of our free enterprise system.

Nevertheless, Mr. Obama has the great opportunity to reverse many of the often-unfortunate national security policies of the 20-year Bush (41)-Clinton-Bush (43) dynasty. Preliminary indications aren’t encouraging, however: This because Mr. Obama has reassembled many of the Bill Clinton national security crowd - a group with far more in common with the past Bush administrations (41 and 43) than Mr. Obama may realize. And, oddly enough, many of the Bush (43) senior political appointees at the Pentagon are still on the job. So much for “change.”

Accordingly, the key question remains: Will new President Barack Obama - like Ronald Reagan struggling with the stubborn persistence of the Cold War - have the leadership skills, wisdom, courage and tenacity to actually “win the war” by taking it directly to the sponsors of terror and terrorism? We’ll know soon, but unless Mr. Obama takes the war - personally - to those who sponsor it, we’ll continue to suffer attacks against our interests worldwide and have more attacks here at home. It’s just a matter of time.

Daniel Gallington is a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for policy studies in Arlington, Va.


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