The closer we get to the election, the more the White House rewrites the notion of “state secrets.” First there was the sneak-peek of Osama bin Laden’s mail. Then there were complaints about supplying Hollywood with inside information for a film version of the raid on bin Laden’s compound. Now, The New York Times reports key details of how the president is running his private war against al Qaeda. Among the revelations is that the president is personally signing-off on a “kill list” of when, where, and which high-ranking al Qaeda operatives will be targeted.
In part, many will recoil at what seems to be a crass political ploy to leak information that portrays the president as a hands-on, effective commander-in-chief. Indeed, the Oval Office seems to routinely target The New York Times for trumpeting alleged foreign policy accomplishments. There is, however, a deeper and more troubling concern. It all sounds a bit too much like LBJ picking targets for the Pentagon during the Vietnam War.
From a practical stand point, it is as big a mistake for a president to try to run the war out of the Oval Office as it was for fat generals to command their troops in the trenches from their Chateaus behind the lines. Further, when presidents start to act like battle captains, they cease acting like presidents. It is engrossing to be absorbed in tactical details and be in on the action. Unfortunately, that takes time away from being president. The White House would be better off spending a lot more time on preventing automatic budget cuts from gutting the armed forces—cuts that just the other day, the president’s secretary of defense labeled “disastrous.”
It is also all too easy to become victim of a belief in “push button” war — the notion that the president can solve all the world’s problem from his plushy chair in the White House. That works on TV shows like “The West Wing” and movies like “Air Force One,” not in the real world. Wars cannot be won this way.
Both Kennedy and LBJ were enamored with special warfare units and covert operations. They wound-up finding out the hard way that these were no easy buttons for winning the Cold War. If Obama persists like acting like warrior-in-chief rather than commander-in-chief, he may soon learn the same bitter lesson.