As Eliot A. Cohen notes in Supreme Command, the four wartime leaders he focuses on were great learners who studied war as if it were their own profession and in many ways mastered it as well as did their generals.
Assessing Barack Obama as commander in chief in comparison to Abraham Lincoln, Georges Clemenceau, Winston Churchill and David Ben-Gurion is inapt since those men had to exercise control over commanders during wars that threatened the very existence of their countries. Iraq and Afghanistan certainly do not qualify when compared to the American Civil War, the world wars and the war to secure infant Israel's independence, so a better comparison might Obama's predecessor.
As Cohen notes, the problem with the Vietnam War was not excessive civilian intrusion but civilian involvement that was qualitatively flawed. President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara were not insisting on the right kind of information and accountability from their generals, who as Cohen puts it "were in a muddle that needed to be noticed and addressed." In this regard, Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, as well as Vice President Cheney, had their Vietnam War counterparts beat by a country mile insofar as wretched leadership.
They didn't want the right kind of information, only agreement with a politically-driven series of strategies in an unnecessary war that had far too few troops. Dissenters were reassigned or forced to retire. The consequent Shiite-Sunni civil war eventually was tamped down when Bush finally had a Come to Jesus moment, realizing the war was lost.
Although the resulting Surge strategy was militarily successful, the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government never intended to capitalize on it, so what Obama has inherited is a conflict in a country more broken than when it was invaded, a troop withdrawal plan that he has pretty much hewed to, as well as an unspoken acknowledgment that once the last American boot has departed Iraq will likely devolve into chaos.
What if Bush's father had only finished the job in the First Gulf War? What if the U.S.-led coalition had driven on to Baghdad and taken out Saddam Hussein and his elite Republican Guard, both of which barely suffered a scratch? The answer is simple: The elder Bush's conditions for victory were met, and he lacked the big-picture abilities and ruthlessness of Cohen's four commanders in chief.
Where Obama will leave his mark as a commander in chief is Afghanistan, an eight-year-old conflict that leaves him no good choices.
His record so far is skimpy but promising, and perhaps nowhere more so than his apparent unwillingness to avoid the kind of strategic fallacies to which an extraordinary number of the leaders and commanders succumbed in the wars and battles chronicled in many of the non-fiction books in the list below this post -- and succumbed to repeatedly.
While there are political considerations in any war, Obama seems determined to take his time weighing the military implications of pouring in 40,000 more troops, as General Stanley McChrystal advocates, beginning large withdrawals while concentrating on surgical strikes against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, as Vice President Biden advocates, or possibly a middle ground, which is what he indicated he was considering in a meeting with congressional leaders yesterday.
Unlike Bush, Obama is an attentive listener, demands to be told the bad news along with the good, encourages healthy dissent and is detail obsessed. He succeeded admirably in his first two big tests: Deciding to keep on Robert Gates, Rumsfeld's successor and the most capable defense secretary of my lifetime, and taking decisive action by ordering the use of deadly force against Somali pirates who had taken an American ship captain hostage.
The jury is still out on the Afghanistan test and will remain so for some time even after Obama decides on a future strategy. Let us pray that there won't be additional tests any time soon.