Will Barack Obama feel the temptation to enhance his claim to presidential greatness by transforming himself into an aggressive war leader? Could this desire lead to an “October Surprise”- like a military strike on Iran- that could radically alter the dynamics of the upcoming Congressional elections?
These questions connect to the recent publication of Tony Blair’s fascinating memoir, A Journey, which places special emphasis on his controversial role as Britain’s leader in the Iraq War. This ferociously formidable politician served as Prime Minister for ten full years (only the last four of which overlapped with military operations in Iraq), permanently transformed his Labour Party, won three landslide victories and made fateful decisions that impacted every aspect of British life. Nevertheless, the world sees Blair (and the former PM clearly sees himself) above all as the charismatic, energetic commander who teamed with George W. Bush to rid the world of Saddam Hussein.
The only other Prime Minister since World War II with a reasonable claim on greatness was also associated with decisive military leadership. Margaret Thatcher, “The Iron Lady,” sent a major task force halfway around the world in 1982 for an amphibious assault on the Argentine invaders who had seized remote British settlements on the Falklands Islands. In the one-sided 74 day conflict, British forces killed 649 Argentines and took 11,300 prisoners; for the rest of her career, “The Falklands Factor” added to Thatcher’s stature and popularity.
As with leaders of the United Kingdom, so too with presidents of the United States: all lists of “greatest” chief executives are dominated by commanders-in-chief who presided over major wars, or else achieved the status of great generals or war heroes in the years before the White House. Lincoln (War Between the States), FDR (WW II), Wilson (WWI), Truman (Korea) and Polk (Mexican War) generally appear on such lists, as do skillful officers who earned their military reputations before their political careers (Washington, Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Kennedy). Reagan (who has recently won consideration as one of the presidential greats) may not have ordered American troops into major battles, but his status as the western leader who built up the military and brought ultimate victory in the long Cold War qualifies him as a national leader in a titanic conflict.