American presidents in wartime must always lead public opinion, not simply do damage control after bad news.
In World War II, FDR led a message offensive, often using his fireside chats. Truman was more reactive than proactive in Korea. LBJ failed miserably in Vietnam, as did Nixon after the 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers. In US wars since, presidents have had mixed success in domestic-war leadership.
For President Obama, the leak on Sunday about “war logs” of the Afghanistan war has again thrown him on the defensive on the home front of public opinion. The war logs come only weeks after other bad news – about Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s disrespectful comments – also helped create fresh doubts about the way the war is being waged and the policy divisions within the administration.
The war logs aren’t greatly surprising except for the revelation that the Taliban has used heat-seeking missiles on US aircraft. Americans already know about Pakistan’s past ties to the Taliban and that US soldiers have difficulty in not harming civilian Afghans while fighting an insurgency. Corruption among Afghan officials is definitely rife. And the training of Afghan forces has not gone well.
But these leaks of secret documents nonetheless give new, more vivid details about the war. They may further disturb Americans about the messy task of winning a seemingly intractable conflict.
The timing of the leaks – three months before elections for Congress – says something about the motive of the unknown leaker(s) within the government. So does the fact that the information was given to an activist website, WikiLeaks, whose Australian owner declares he wants to make sure the war is conducted humanely. Strangely, the logs only go up to December 2009, the month that Mr. Obama announced a new strategy calling for a surge of 30,000 additional troops in the conflict.
And rather than simply post the war logs by itself, Wikileaks also made sure to amplify the political impact by leaking the logs to three major publications in the United States (The New York Times), Germany (Der Spiegel), and Britain (The Guardian). Despite the rising clout of the Internet, it seems traditional print media (along with their websites) still have some pull.
Opinion polls in the US indicate weak support for the war, especially as the Obama troop surge and a stronger Taliban force have led to rising American casualties. If anything, the war logs indicate how little President Bush did to win this “war of necessity,” as Obama calls it, preferring instead to put military resources toward success in the Iraq war.
Obama has rightly stepped up resources for this war – in order to finish the task as soon as possible. But by now he should have learned to apply greater time and effort to win over American support. If he does not speak more often and more openly about the war – its problems and its successes – he will lose support in Congress. He may then be forced to withdraw US troops before Afghanistan can gain the upper hand over the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Obama’s national security strategy is focused on tending the revival of America’s domestic strength in order to create a stronger US presence abroad. But as this latest flap shows, he must also tend to domestic support for this war of necessity, knowing that news shocks are the norm in almost any war.