At what point does President Obama assume responsibility for a war? Is accepting responsibility for the war the same thing as owning the war? When does any President ‘own’ a war? This is a curious talking point for the 24/7 news media. Historically, we generally do not tag our Presidents as owners of wars that happen on their watch.
Yesterday, Friday March, 27, 2009, President Obama held one of those announcement sessions. He was flanked by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The President affirmed his immediate plans to send more troops to Afghanistan. The President also laid out in some detail his foreign policy approach to that region and how the troops fit in the picture.
But speaking of ownership for a war, there were many wars in the 20th Century. WWI was a mess in Europe during the Woodrow Wilson Administration. Wilson restrained our country and entered WWI as a last effort. Nobody called WWI “Wilson’s War.” WWII came along in the late 1930’s. Hitler was bombing London in 1939, but Franklin Roosevelt acted with restraint, until Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. WWII is generally thought of as Hitler’s War. No one hangs the label on Stalin or Churchill, or Roosevelt. Korea was spawned as fallout from WWII. Harry Truman was the President. Truman was wise enough to draw the line in the sand at the 37th Parallel, refusing to escalate into a third world war. The Korea War happened on Truman’s watch – but he is generally not held responsible for the conflict – no one talks in terms of ‘Truman’s War.’
Vietnam changed the dynamic of our understanding of war. The French had colonized Southeast Asia during the Vasco da Gama era of European colonization of the world. That era essentially ended in 1948 when India proclaimed independence from Britain. Southeast Asia included the small countries of Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Each struggled for independence – but the world dynamic had become cold, fostered by the conflict of the ‘Super Powers’ of the Communism and Democracy. China and the Soviet Union supported North Vietnam – South Vietnam was surrendered by the French to American interests. President Eisenhower sent some military advisers. President Kennedy sent more. When Kennedy was assassinated there were about 15,000 American military advisers in South Vietnam. President Johnson inherited the conflict and escalated the American Military presence to over 500,000 in five years. President Nixon took the reins and the war continued for another six years. Vietnam is often referred to as ‘Lyndon Johnson’s War.’ President Johnson earned that label – it is clear that his choices dictated the eventual escalation and misery. Some give credit to the Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson, Robert McNamara. Some call Vietnam “McNamara’s War.’
The first Persian Gulf War in 1991 has not been called ‘Bush’s War.’ Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and an international coalition of countries, led by the United States, quickly spanked the errant Hussein.
The world dynamic changed again on September 11, 2001. Well organized and well funded terrorists escalated their world wide terrorist attacks by killing 3,000 Americans on American soil. These terrorists had their base camps in Afghanistan. The 43rd President, George W. Bush, quickly and efficiently toppled the Taliban led Afghan government. The Afghan War of late 2001 and early 2002 are owned by Osama Bin Laden. But Bush II failed to capture or kill the leaders of the terrorist organized crime syndicate called Al Quaeda. Rather, Bush focused his attention on Iraq and Saddam Hussein. President Bush will own the Iraq War. Some will refer to Iraq as ‘Rumsfield’s War’ – The Secretary of Defense was the architect of a failed military strategy. Ultimately, the President owns the action of his administration.
Because of Bush’s inattention, the Taliban and Al Quaeda have resurrected themselves in Afghanistan and along the border with Pakistan. This mess has been inherited by President Obama much as Vietnam was inherited by President Richard Nixon. It is too early to declare Afghanistan as ‘Obama’s War.’
Ownership of the Afghan War will depend on Obama. If Obama chooses to engage in ‘nation building’ then he will own the war. If Obama stays focused on the mission of capturing or killing Osama Bin Laden, of dismantling Al Quaeda, he will not own the war.
President Obama holds the reins of his future in history.