Colin Powell, honored soldier, respected leader, and much-loved American, will have helped ease the minds of those who still wonder whether Barack Obama has the makings of a commander-in-chief. By his endorsement, General Powell has said: "I would follow President Obama." It is not a thing said lightly by those who know what it means to hold the lives of others in their hands, as Colin Powell does know.
It is a conclusion many of us, veterans and active duty personnel, and military families, have reached by different routes in the past year, and it is a good thing to have our judgment affirmed by a man of General Powell's experience and seasoned judgment.
For judgment is all we have to go on as we reason toward such decisions. History teaches us that biography itself is an unreliable guide to behavior in ultimate command. Of all our presidents, only Dwight Eisenhower could have been expected, on the basis of his demonstrated abilities and behavior over the course of his life and military career to be a great commander-in-chief. He did not fail, but rather exceeded that expectation. We were lucky.
More commonly, American history has shown that perceived experience gives no indication how a man will perform as commander-in-chief. Ulysses S. Grant was a great general, but a failed commander-in-chief. Abraham Lincoln, of undistinguished lineage, with one term in the US Congress under his belt, and sneered at by many as a man of limited ability, would prove to be America's greatest commander-in-chief.
Election of a leader is, by definition, a choosing, and choosing involves comparisons and the categories of comparison each of us brings to the task are various and discrete. But there are three we may all agree upon and these include temperament; judgment; and, value consistency, or integrity.
Chief Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said of Franklin Roosevelt that he had a second class intellect, but a first class temperament. Demonstrably, Barack Obama has a first class intellect, and there is widespread agreement that he has also an excellent temperament: steady, self-assured, inviting. Obama is not belligerent, not rattled in confrontation. It is a quality to be desired in a person with the ability to take a nation to war.
The approach of an anniversary burned into the memories of many Americans, my own not least, is a proper time for considering the virtues of judgment. October 23 will mark 25 years since the bombing of the quarters of the Marine Battalion Landing Team in Beirut. The year before, 1982, President Ronald Reagan sent US forces into Lebanon in what began as a humanitarian mission following an Israeli invasion that resulted in atrocities against Palestinian refugees. As the caskets landed at Dover AFB, President Reagan was under great pressure to send more forces into Lebanon to avenge the lives of 241 Americans lost. All that stood between senior members of his government who counseled widening the war, and the expansion of the catastrophe in Lebanon, was Reagan's own cool judgment.
Angry and heartsick though he was, his instincts resisted the arguments for sending more Americans to Lebanon, and he had the confidence to do it. He saw, as others were unable to see, that America's national security interests were not engaged in that place. He resisted the gambler's impulse to try to recoup our losses by risking further losses. Thus, there would be no "surge," no bombastic commitment to "stay the course," no promises to bring our troops home "in victory." It is interesting today to consider whether Ronald Reagan would have chosen to take the US to war in Iraq or whether, like Barack Obama, he would have rejected that course.
Finally, Barack Obama has attracted to his campaign many who have grown weary with the downward course of politics in American. He has drawn to himself men and women who have believed, because a faith in their nation and a fresh hope in their hearts compelled them to believe, that a man might yet reach for our nation's highest office without staining himself, without compromising his integrity along the way.
Obama has not failed their faith; he has not wilted nor wavered in the face of attacks that would at other times, in other campaigns, have been answered in kind. He has demanded that those who follow him follow his principles, and they have not shamed him. It should come as no surprise that so many of those who support Barack Obama are veterans and active members of the nation's armed forces, men and women sworn by oath to standards of behavior codified in our nation's Constitution. Senator Obama may not have worn the uniform, but he has the allegiance and confidence of hundreds of thousands who have.