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Obama, Presidential Greatness and the War Temptation

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

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.

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.

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