Has Obama Been "Rolled By The Generals?"

President Barack Obama meets with Gen. Ray Odierno at Camp Victory in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, April 7, 2009.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
The "On The Marc" column is written by The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder, CBS News' chief political consultant.
In her latest column, The New York Times's Maureen Dowd, channeling "Dick Cheney," writes of President Barack Obama: "He's a sucker for four-star generals, can't resist anyone in uniform. Petraeus and Odierno speak and he jumps. If we want to roll him, we just send in the military brass flashing their medals."

In Washington parlance, Dowd, a political liberal, is bemoaning the fact that Obama regularly gets "rolled by the generals" - or fell victim to legerdemain because he could not resist the chestfuls of shiny medals and the exaggerated deference to him shown by the commanders of his armed forces.

She's referring, in particular, to reports that the president changed his mind about the wisdom of releasing photographs showing U.S. troops abusing detainees because Generals David Petraeus and Ray Odierno complained to him that the release would endanger troops around the world. The day after Obama announced his decision, the respected former Washington Post military correspondent Thomas Ricks bluntly wrote that Obama was now "twice rolled" by the military because, on the urging of Petraeus and Odierno and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, he delayed the timetable for withdrawing U.S. combat troops from Iraq.

This is a meme I've been watching -- frustration on the left that President Obama is incapable of asserting independence from his generals, and that he is easily bamboozled (a phrase Obama used in a difference context) by their arguments because he is naïve and does not know better. The bill of particulars is fairly long: not only did he change his mind on the detainee photos and delay the Iraq withdrawal, he also agreed to his generals' plans for a troop surge in Afghanistan and he's softened his language about the timeframe for repealing the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy banning gays from the military.

But these theories ignore some evidence to the contrary. Several times, in fact, Obama has overruled the prevailing wishes of the military establishment. He's endorsed aggressive procurement reform, and, against the wishes of many generals, is standing firm as his Defense Department attempts to pare down funding for superstar battle systems like the F-22 fighter jet. More interestingly, he overruled his Secretary of Defense on the crucial question of whether the United States should replace its nuclear weapons arsenal with a newer generation of warheads. Gates said it was vital to the country's national security interests, but the White House insisted that funding for the warheads be cut to zero.

That said, Obama does have a penchant for building consensus, and that might mean that he is susceptible to the political wrangling of his flag officers. Or it might mean that Obama simply respects the views of the people who are fighting the wars on the ground and not necessarily the views of elites, be they Congressional, at the New York Times, or in the Washington think tank world.

Another theory among some Obama watchers is that, as a young Democratic politician, he wants to build credibility with the military - something that the last young Democratic president, Bill Clinton, neglected to do until several years into his presidency. Indeed, Clinton famously reversed course on gays in the military because he did not have the gumption or the political wherewithal to stand up to extremely savvy veterans of the game like Colin Powell.

Note, too, that Obama's positions on all of these issues pretty much track toward the center of the American people. He's developed a sensibility for managing the optics of his decisions, and as a result, Americans see him as a capable commander in chief. When even tougher decisions have to be made - and when and if Obama has to confront his general officer corps - the political capital he's building now may well pay off.
By Marc Ambinder