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Obama, Iraq and the New York Elites

Two elite publications — captured the state of play during a critical juncture in the presidential campaign on two key elements…

CANAAN, Ind. – The venerable New Yorker Magazine made a mistake recently – a big mistake – in marketing its exceptional piece about Barack Obama’s rapid rise through the landmine-laden terrain of Illinois politics.

New Yorker editors inadvertently diverted attention from their own informative reporting on Sen. Obama by publishing a sophomoric and indefensible political cartoon on the July 21 cover.
The New York Times also made a mistake in editorial judgment in the same week, in its race to vindicate Obama’s Iraq stance(s), in space no less valuable than the top of its front page – real estate traditionally reserved for premiere “news” offerings of the day.

One could say that the New Yorker erred to the right (figuratively); the Times to the left (literally), of course.

Combined, the two elite publications captured the state of play during a critical juncture in the presidential campaign on two key elements: Obama’s ever-evolving Iraq “policy” and the mainstream media’s embarrassing infatuation with the very junior Senator from Chicago.

The Times chose not to use its top space on July 22 to provide straight, factual coverage of his trip or a balanced article about results of the surge and the way ahead – the what next of policy execution on the ground in Iraq. Instead, their endorsement of Sen. Obama came in the form of a “news analysis” above the fold on page one, immediately below a 4-column color photo of the Senator flying over Baghdad with an architect of the surge, U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus.

The New Yorker’s editorial leadership made a strategic error with dubious placement of a satiric cartoon on the magazine’s cover which distracted attention from its content: specifically the expert reporting and accessible writing of Ryan Lizza. The talk of the town was all about the cover art (a drawing of the Obamas in militant Muslim costume) – not about the revealing written portrait of an ambitious young pol on the climb.

Mr. Lizza’s contribution (“Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama”) is a detailed peek behind the historical curtain – revealing how a young Harvard Law graduate with a funny name and no local ties boldly moved to Chicago and quickly scaled the tricky ladder of Illinois politics. How adept Obama was at embracing Chicago’s established political order – expertly leveraging the ultimate old school politics environment – without being consumed by it. How careful Mr. Obama was to keep his machine-style tactics behind the curtain. And how confident Obama was of his own greatness, from the start.

The New York Times July 22 contribution carried the header: “For Obama, a First Step Is Not a Misstep” – and included such commentary as: “The Iraqi government on Monday left little doubt that it favors a withdrawal plan for American combat troops similar to what Senator Barack Obama has proposed, providing Mr. Obama with a potentially powerful political boost…. Mr. Obama seemed to have navigated one of the riskiest portions of a weeklong international trip without a noticeable hitch and to have gained a new opportunity to blunt attacks on his national security credentials….”

Never mind that the potential for a gradual and calibrated reduction of forces (as opposed to Obama’s previously preferred withdrawal by date certain) may now be possible precisely because the stay-and-fight surge he opposed turned out to be the right policy. This is the policy that was steadfastly supported by his opponent, Sen. McCain, as well as promoted and executed by Gen. Petraeus (his helicopter seatmate in the ironic Army photo at the top of the Times’ front page – the second front page color Obama photo in two days).

Never mind that the yardstick for measuring a potential U.S. commander-in-chief’s credentials is how he or she would protect America’s long-term security interests, not their compatibility with the latest statement of an Iraqi official who must navigate the ever-shifting Iraqi political currents.

Never mind that an essential element of presidential leadership is the kind of political courage and personal backbone required to keep national security policy a notch above the ebb and flow of domestic opinion and political discourse that surrounds most domestic issues.

In a July, 2003 Defense Department trip throughout Iraq, two generals impressed me: David Petraeus, who at that time was in charge of the north – including the multi-ethnic linchpin of Mosul; and Ray Odierno, the Mr. Clean-meets-Telly Savalas alpha general toiling to keep a lid on the boiling Sunni heartland, including Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit – as commander of the US 4th Infantry Division.

What set these two apart was their level of cultural awareness and their relentless focus on results on the ground. It was clear that they knew what was going on in their slice of Iraqi society. They also were not afraid to speak up, appropriately, to their superiors when traditional tactics weren’t working.

Petraeus and Odierno proved themselves to be tough, focused and highly intelligent soldiers-turned-leaders who understood that communication with their Iraqi publics and simple efforts to make modest improvements in basic quality of life on the street were essential elements of coalition military success. They also understood the imperative of force; they asked for more troops and for more patient resolve from all U.S. officials, in both parties.

White House and Pentagon leadership recognized and rewarded this talent in the field – even though Petraeus’ and Odierno’s views sometimes cut against the grain of convention when they pushed for fresh thinking and revised tactics; Petraeus and Odierno have been promoted twice to positions where they could impact, first, the entire theater of operations, and now, the entire region. Petraeus was confirmed in July as the new head US Central Command, in charge of 27 countries including Iraq, while Odierno will soon take his place as the senior commander on the ground in Baghdad.

After extensive research and dozens of interviews, The New Yorker’s Lizza concluded that the Chicago-era Obama was highly focused on himself, his image, and on networking with politically powerful machine operatives and wealthy potential donors. Lizza: “Obama seems to have been meticulous about constructing a political identity for himself…. (he) has always had a healthy understanding of the reaction he elicits in others….”

“Even then (1990), the essential elements of Obama-mania were present: the fascination with his early life, the adulatory quotes from friends who thought that he would be President one day, and Obama’s frank, though sometimes ostentatious, capacity for self-reflection. (‘To some extent, I’m a symbolic stand-in for a lot of the changes that have been made,’ he told the Boston Globe in 1990.’)”

“He campaigns on reforming a broken political process,” Lizza writes, “yet he has always played politics by the rules as they exist, not as he would like them to exist. He runs as an outsider, but he has succeeded by mastering the inside game.”

If layers of pomp and bureaucracy are stripped away from the Presidency, at its core are a few fundamental responsibilities. Making sound judicial nominations to the federal bench is among them. Serving as commander-in-chief, entrusted with the longevity of the republic and security of her people, is the most fundamental.

In the U.S. Senate and as a presidential candidate, Barack Obama opposed the surge when it was popular to do so; but he made clear on his recent European tour that he is now attempting to occupy both sides of the debate – one foot gingerly placed in each camp (not firmly planted…)

According to Ryan Lizza, Penny Pritzker, of the wealthy, Hyatt Hotel-owning Chicago family, told freshman Senator Obama in 2006: “As I see it, the two things that you’re going to need to address are your executive leadership skills, because your resume doesn’t have that in it, and the second would be your credentials in national security.”

Petraeus and Odierno (as well as former Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace, and all who have served in the field) are heroes for helping us fight our way out of a suicidal corner clinch where we had become boxed in – by a combination of policy missteps and historical fate. We had become vulnerable to our enemy’s tenacity and the assymetricism of their nihilistic suicide tactics. The count was winding down.

In the first open election after September 11, 2001, American voters should consider carefully the resumes and resolve of the two presidential nominees, particularly in time of war. One view is reflected in a recent comment by former Senator Fred Thompson on Mark Levin’s syndicated radio program(www.marklevinshow.com): “I don’t think the American people are going to turn the keys over to a 12-year-old in heavy traffic.”

As the New Yorker piece expertly revealed, Barack Obama has proven himself to be a nimble politician with burning ambition, enormous self-confidence and a tremendous oratorical gift. So far, Mr. Obama has seized every opportunity before him, and created several more at key junctures in his short career.

Senator Obama may eventually get a chance to test whether he has the right stuff to be a leader, or even a “stand-in for a lot of” change. But first he has to stand for something and be willing to explain and defend it. He must demonstrate a leader’s ability to adapt appropriately to changing circumstances while remaining loyal to core principles and early supporters.

Remarkable talent for adapting expediently to meet the electoral needs of the moment is not enough.

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Written By

Kevin Kellems served in the Office of the Vice President and the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2001-2005.

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