President Barack Obama may be a cussed liberal, a naive child in some respects, a player of “Chicago Way” politics, and an arrogant chief executive with a thin skin.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t see him as a human being. And the burden he carries as Commander in Chief was brought home to him, I’m sure, last night with his unannounced trip to Dover Air Force Base to welcome home fallen heroes.
Obama is a complex man who is still something of a mystery to the American people - at least those who don’t see him as the devil incarnate trying to set up a socialist dictatorship. There is a lot of fakery in being president no matter who you are, but when the genuine moments peek through, we get a glimpse of the real man whose job it is to protect us and the nation.
Some things, you just can’t fake. Clinton at Oklahoma City. George W. Bush talking about his son’s torments. Ronald Reagan at Point du Hoc.
And now, Obama at Dover:
The president arrived at Dover AFB at 12:34am after 40-minute chopper ride from the White House. An Air Force C-17 carrying the 18 fallen U.S. personnel had arrived at Dover before the president. Among the dead on board were 7 U.S. Army soldiers and 3 DEA agents killed when their MH-47 Chinook crashed at Darreh-ye-bum, and 8 U.S. soldiers killed when their STRYKER personnel vehicle was struck by IED blast in the Arghandab River Valley.
It was a somber event.
The military confirmed the name of only one of the soldiers whose transfer the President witnessed: Sgt Dale R. Griffin, from Terre Haute, Indiana, who served in Operation Enduring Freedom.
At one point before the dignified transfers, President Obama spent time on the plane, accompanied by just Beers, otherwise alone with the eighteen fallen
At 3:39 am the President walked up the ramp of the C-17 to attend a short prayer given by Major Richard S. Bach, an Air Force chaplain. Obama emerged minutes later, the last in a line of personnel, and stood at attention in the cool night breeze, his hands cupped at his side.
At 3:50 am the flag-draped transfer case–not a coffin or casket–was carried from the plane to a waiting vehicle while all those participating saluted.
Griffin’s family gave permission for the media to cover the transfer.
The three DEA agents killed were identified as 37-year-old Forrest Leamon and 30-year-old Chad Michael, both from Virginia, and 37-year-old Michael Weston of Washington. Weston, like Obama, was a Harvard Law School graduate.
Obama’s participation in this sad military tradition comes at a critical time for the President, as he weighs sending as many as 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan. President Obama continues to deliberate with his commanders and advisors and will likely announce his decision after the Afghan elections on November 7 and before he departs for Asia on November 11, though the announcement could come after he returns from the Asia trip.
The New York Times referred to Obama’s trip as a “symbolic event” designed to show the president is thinking deeply about what to do in Afghanistan. This may very well be true. But the president is not made of stone. And the emotion that animated his face during this solemn, heart rending ceremony showed that he understands his responsibilities. And his words a few days ago to Marines at a Naval Air Station in Florida reflected the seriousness with which he is approaching the problem. “I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm’s way,” he told them. Would that President Lyndon Johnson have said something similar in 1964.
Whether he will do “the right thing” (whatever that is) in Afghanistan is an entirely different question. While I sympathize with his dilemma, I criticize the time he is taking to make up his mind. I know he is trying to build “consensus” in the government for his policy but it was apparent weeks ago that his administration is riven by this decision and that reaching a consensus is probably out of the question. Also, the issues he seems to be stuck over are political ones; more troops, or less certainly has a military component but in the president’s case, he is just as certainly looking over his left shoulder at the base of his support who either wants to wind the war down or start getting out of Afghanistan immediately. And he is almost certainly wrestling with the language of commitment as well for the same reason.
This goes to a very basic question we should be asking about this president; can he be decisive? Does he have the ability to “go it alone” if he is convinced he is right and so many disagree? Our policy in Afghanistan is a good test case for this yardstick of presidential leadership. So far, I am not impressed. Splitting the difference is not an option here. He either must go “all in” or start pushing away from the table.
And thus, his trip to Dover and a visit with the families of the fallen. Bush never got the credit he deserved for this painful presidential chore - made all the more searing by the stinging words of some family members who blamed the president for their child’s death. What few media reports emerged from these emotional sessions were difficult to read. But seeing Bush as a human being was not in the liberal’s playbook so these visits were either ignored or were churlishly commented upon.
I am glad the president made the trip. I wonder how or if it will affect his thinking on Afghanistan? Will it steel his resolve to formulate a policy that will give meaning to their deaths by trying to carry on and pacify the country, thus infusing their sacrifice with meaning? Or does he already see Afghanistan as a lost cause and will look for the quickest way out consistent with assuring the safety of our troops and leaving some kind of government in place that can fend for itself?
As I said, a dilemma to be sure. Whatever he decides, it can’t hurt that he will have the faces of the family members of our dead soldiers at the front of his mind when he finally makes up his mind.