The Washington Post has a long article on President Obama’s attitude toward military action. This issue is especially important because "the president faces mounting pressure to send more troops to Iraq to help in the battle against Islamic State extremists," as reporter Greg Jaffe puts it. The administration officials that Jaffe spoke to have an interesting explanation for the president's reluctance to intervene further in Iraq. It’s all about the troops.
Jaffe’s piece begins with a dramatic tale from 2012 regarding the president’s meeting with a mortuary affairs team in Afghanistan, an experience, we are told, that was part of his growing reluctance to sacrifice American lives abroad:
Air Force One, its windows blacked out to guard against attack, touched down in Afghanistan well after dark.
President Obama’s war-zone visits are usually short and ceremonial. In his six hours on the ground, he appeared alongside Afghanistan’s leader, pinned Purple Hearts on the wounded and spoke to a hangar full of U.S. troops.
But Obama also made time for something else, something personal. Just after 2 a.m., the president slipped away for a meeting that he had deliberately kept off his public schedule.
In a small, private room, 15 mortuary affairs soldiers waited to greet him. These were the soldiers who prepared the bodies of troops killed in battle for their trip home. To blunt the overpowering stench of death, they wore masks when they worked, burned their uniforms regularly and dabbed Vicks VapoRub under their noses.
Now that they were about to meet Obama, members of a unit used to working in the isolation of war’s grim aftermath all had the same question: Of all the soldiers in Afghanistan, why had the president asked to see them?
The inescapable Ben Rhodes, the White House’s deputy national security adviser (and the only current administration official to speak on the record for the article) notes, "We believe it is a national security objective not to be losing service members in wars." In addition to being bad in and of themselves, he goes on, casualties provoke the American people into wanting more military action:
Obama set the limits on American military involvement [against the Islamic State] to prevent rash or unnecessary escalations that might result from U.S. casualties, said White House officials. "Whenever an American is harmed, it creates pressures to do something in response," Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, said. "You saw that — even though they were not service members — with the hostages that were killed by [the Islamic State]."
The White House pushes the narrative in this piece that a thoughtful Obama—who once "asked his speechwriters pull together a packet of writings about war by people he admired: King, Gandhi, Churchill, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Reinhold Niebuhr"—has been sufficiently moved by his exposure to America’s war dead as to now hesitate to send troops into battle. Thus, his reluctance to do much against the Islamic State, let alone to provoke Iran or Russia.
Whatever the truth of this, the troops don’t seem to be returning the affection: a recent poll showed that Obama commands a truly miserable 15% approval rating among servicemen. Why?
Perhaps the troops don’t appreciate the obvious cynicism of White House aides who paint Obama’s dovish foreign policy as primarily a consequence of his dealings with America’s war dead—a cynicism that includes the neat trick of telling Jaffe, the reporter, that these moments were "private" for Obama, while helping Jaffe obtain all of the details of what happened so they can be published in the Washington Post.
Obama’s attitude toward casualties may or may not have evolved since 2009, but the narrative spun here certainly does track with another evolution that is much easier to verify: the ascendancy of the Ben Rhodes-Denis McDonough-Susan Rice foreign-policy wing over a more serious tendency led, at various times, by Bob Gates, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and David Petraeus. Obama’s 2009 decision to surge troops to Afghanistan while imposing a deadline for their return represented an unstable compromise between the two wings.
As of 2015, there are no more compromises. From the total withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 to the utterly token efforts against the Islamic State today, the doves are in charge. Because we aren’t really doing anything serious to fight our enemies, the various fights are going terribly.
It may seem like the White House is delusional or deeply cynical or both—but there is an internal logic to all of these dovish policies, and it is more complicated than the concern for the troops that White House advisers peddle to the Washington Post. People on the right like to joke that Obama sees American conservatives as his true enemies, that he is less willing to negotiate with Congress than he is with Iran. Remarks like these are intended as a humorous overstatement, but there is more truth to them than is at first obvious—and it goes to the heart of the issue of why Obama will never be a popular commander in chief.
For Obama, the world is not divided, as it was for Bush, between nations that support a democratic and liberal world order and nations that oppose such a world, preferring jihad or dictatorship or exploitative hegemony. This president believes that the world is divided between those that support peace and those who, motivated by their irrational fears, will not give peace a chance. All nations are basically the same, and most people want basically the same thing. The United States is not morally better or worse than a regional hegemon like Iran. Most Americans, like most Iranians, just want to live in peace.
The true enemies are the hawks in both countries. If reasonable men like Obama and Rouhani and Putin could simply shut out the distractions, peace could be achieved.
As a consequence of such thinking, we get the bizarro-world breakdown of friends and enemies for the Obama administration. Enemies include Israel, eastern European nations, Gulf Arabs, conservatives in Taiwan and Japan, and of course the American right. All of these parties provoke countries like Russia and Iran and China into belligerent action. If instead of provoking these countries we offered them a hand, peace could be achieved. Sure, this peace wouldn’t be very ‘democratic,’—but an American-led democratic order is a bit of a sham, isn’t it? After all, how can we criticize Iran when a Ferguson can happen right here in the USA?
The Obama administration is careful about making public too much of this worldview, because most Americans, and their representatives in Congress, think it is crazy. But the evidence that this is how the White House understands itself is abundant.
All of this brings to mind nothing so much as the breakdown of people in the movie American Sniper into sheep, sheep-dogs, and wolves—a division criticized by some of the left, and with recent origins in the writings of military scholar Dave Grossman (and with classical origins in Plato.) The idea is that most people are sheep, minding their own business and leading their lives, hoping to thrive without interference. A small minority are predatory wolves, who thrive on dominating others. Thus, for a free society to exist, another minority must be encouraged to defend the sheep—sheep dogs.
Americans love their soldiers—they have turned out in droves to see American Sniper—because they are grateful to them for, in a sense, playing their dangerous role as sheepdogs: taking great risks to defend those at home who are not directly in harm’s way. I would wager that most in the military enjoy seeing themselves this way, too.
For Obama and the doves in the White House, this very way of understanding the world is the problem. There are no real wolves out there. Iran and Russia don’t really want domination for its own sake. They want peace, and the only reason they act out is because those who insist on seeing themselves as sheepdogs insist on behaving provocatively.
There are many factors that contribute to Obama’s unpopularity as commander-in-chief—but high up on the list must be the fact that those who have chosen the defense of America as their profession sense that they are being led by a man who sees the very instinct to defend the interests of a nation such as ours as problematic.
No number of stories in the Washington Post will fix that.