There's nothing like bitter experience to test glib theories. But presidents can be remarkably slow learners, such is the power of their more cherished -- and fixed -- ideas.
Following those ideas over the cliff tends to reduce politicians to explaining why their policies were really right all along, no matter how wrong they proved in practice. See Jimmy Carter -- or, for that matter, Jefferson Davis. The first, and last, president of the Confederate States of America could still fill up two unreadable volumes explaining why his constitutional theories were absolutely right -- even as he stood amid the ruins his theories had wrought.
Other leaders wake up just in time to shake off their delusions, reverse course, and avoid the worst. Consider the case of George W. Bush. It took him the longest time to see through Donald Rumsfeld's celebrated metrics as Iraq slipped into chaos and what could have been a demoralizing defeat of Vietnam Era proportions.
In the end Dubya proved educable after all, thanks to considerable prodding from a couple of U.S. senators -- John McCain and Joe Lieberman -- and reality itself. He stopped doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. He changed secretaries of defense, commanding generals, and the whole set of strategies and tactics the United States and NATO had been employing in Iraq.
Indeed, he changed everything about American policy there, especially the result, and managed to snatch success from the jaws of failure. And just in time, too, for at that point he was soon to leave the Oval Office to a successor who'd promised to reverse the policies that had saved the day in Iraq.
Barack Obama, too, has finally caught on, and changed course 180 degrees in this Long War against terror. By now President Obama has embraced a whole gamut of policies he used to denounce (rather eloquently, too) as Senator and Presidential Candidate Obama. He's revived military commissions, approved warrantless wiretapping (of terrorists' international calls), and is keeping the military prison at Guantanamo open after all.
As president and commander-in-chief, Mr. Obama has come to understand that some unlawful combatants are much too dangerous to turn loose on the world. Maybe that's why he's expanded his predecessor's practice of renditions -- the transfer of certain prisoners to less hospitable confines abroad.
This commander-in-chief has also adopted tactics like targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders, cross-border attacks on enemy hideouts in Pakistan, and the use of Predator drones against an elusive foe who turns out to be not so elusive after all on happy occasion.
As for the Surge that Barack Obama once so curtly dismissed in Iraq, it has become the hallmark of his policy in Afghanistan. As a senator, he said he knew of no expert who thought such a surge would succeed. ("I don't know any expert on the region or any military officer that I've spoken to privately that believes that that is going to make a substantial difference on the situation on the ground. ... Here's what we know. The Surge has not worked.") He must not have talked to one David Petraeus, the general who wrote the book on counterinsurgency warfare, or at least put it together from the best advice available, and then applied its lessons to Iraq. With considerable success.
Senator Obama's was a widely shared skepticism at the time. Remember when Hillary Clinton, then a senator from New York, said it would take "a willful suspension of disbelief" to credit General Petraeus' counsel? That may have been the most insulting -- and now demonstrably wrong -- judgment she has ever made. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, has she ever apologized to the general. Even at this late date. Such is the fate of the country's best at the hands of its glibbest.
But as president, Barack Obama is proving he can learn on the job, no matter what he said before being elected to it. He may not admit to earlier misjudgments but, far more important, he corrects them. And deserves to be applauded when he does.
If only this new, welcome Barack Obama would call off his attorney general's prosecution/persecution/investigation of the kind of intelligence operatives the president has just praised for their role in the happy demise of Osama bin Laden. Then his transformation from kibitzer-in-chief to commander-in-chief might be complete.
Why let these CIA agents twist in the wind any longer under the unwatchful eye of the Hon. Eric Holder, an attorney general who makes the much-maligned John Ashcroft's conduct of that office look superb? By now that may be General Holder's most conspicuous talent.
Nothing might aid this president's re-election prospects more than an announcement that Counselor Holder was retiring to spend more time with his family.