In fact, the only American president regularly to receive the designation “great” without experience as a war-time commander (either before or during his White House service) would be Thomas Jefferson. And his prominent pre-presidential role in the American Revolution (as author the Declaration of Independence and Governor of Virginia) still gave him a pivotal role in the midst of an epic eight year struggle.
Considering the obvious tendency to connect presidential greatness to war leadership, Bill Clinton once lamented the fact that he’d never occupy the first rank of chief executives in history books because he’d never led the country through a major conflict. Somehow, the notion of a president in lonely grandeur working long past midnight on battle plans will always seem more stirring than the image of the Leader of the Free World keeping similarly late hours to map strategy on fighting off impeachment charges related to his sexcapades.
This brings us back to Barack Obama, who has frequently expressed his impatience with the inherited twin conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite his oft-repeated determination to withdraw American troops from these current theatres of operation, could he ever feel the temptation to build political clout and historical standing by initiating a war of his very own?
He knows that he can gain little public credit if Iraq and Afghanistan wind-down successfully, though he’d draw substantial blame if things go horribly wrong. The notion of a new military initiative is, however, another matter, where the president could make himself an international hero by, say, decisively removing the threat of a nuclear Iran.
Even the neo-pacifist Jimmy Carter felt the war temptation when he ordered a major American assault on Teheran to liberate the embassy hostages. Had the badly-botched operation actually succeeded, he knew it would assure his re-election and sharply boost his place in history.
Concerning November’s elections, Obama may not care enough about Nancy Pelosi’s survival as Speaker of the House to launch a daring military stroke before the crucial midterm elections of 2010.
But if his presidency continues to flail and fail, and he faces an uphill struggle for his own re-election, he might then succumb to the timeless lure of assuming a role as resolute military commander and using the nation’s peerless armed forces to enhance both national security and his own prestige.