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Obama’s War: Will He Succeed?

August 3, 2009

The United States has been in Afghanistan since 2001, and since then 749 American soldiers have been killed and hundreds wounded. Iraq’s a scarier story, where 4,316 soldiers have been killed and thousands wounded (Source: Washington Post.com). Some have said that Afghanistan is the ‘Good War’ and that the Iraq war is the ‘bad war.’ I didn’t realize that war is ever good, except that there are times when one is essentially compelled to take action. A case in point is World War Two, such as when my late father, a Scottish immigrant living in Winnipeg, joined the Canadian navy in 1942. That was truly about freedom, and Canada – a colony – quickly stepped up to the plate to aid Britain. And the United States, under the charismatic leadership of FDR, was the deciding factor in defeating Germany, Italy and Japan.

President Obama, like other presidents and prime ministers, has inherited a war. I believe that his heart – and head – are in the right place. It’s easy to say to extract soldiers from a combat theatre when you’re on the campaign trail; it’s quite another when you actually lead a nation – in this case the world’s richest democracy. This has been Obama’s reality awakening. But I quickly add that he’s no push over. Witness his quick executive decision to approve the shooting by the Navy Seals of the Somalian pirates who stupidly commandeered a US ship a few months ago.

But as Bob Woodward said on Face the Nation today (Sunday), how do you measure success from a ‘visible, sustainable war?’ While not officially confirmed, it’s said that the U.S. will be deploying tens of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan to quell the escalating insurgency by the Taliban. July was the worst month for the international coalition in regard to deaths and wounded. The U.S. will have been been in Afghanistan for eight years by the fall of 2009. In contrast, it was involved in the Second World War for some three years (losing 292,000 soldiers), three years in World War One (with over 58,000 deaths), and three years in the Korean War (2,800 deaths).

What President Obama faces, probably more so than any other American leader in the country’s history, is a combination of climbing out of a nasty recession, restoring faith in its banking and financial system, sparking consumer spending, combatting a massive and growing national debt (the deficit is child’s play), climate change, desperately needed healthcare reform, the erosion of the middle class, and restoring America’s international reputation. Now I pose the question: Is President Obama superman? Can anyone remotely suggest another human who would be better able to assume the task of President of the United States?

Sure, President Obama has made some dumb goofs, such as the recent Henry Gates incident, which got blown out of proportion, aided by his poorly timed comment. But through a leadership lense, let’s gain some perspective. I’ll turn to two people of whom I have great respect: Jack and Suzy Welch. I read their weekly column in Business Week, and valued their recent comments on how Obama is doing from a leadership viewpoint. Remember, Jack Welch is the former hard-assed CEO of General Electric who did amazing things for the company; the guy’s no pushover. Their assessment is that Obama is demonstrating solid leadership skills.

Here’s what I would add to what Obama is showing through the leadership lense:
– the ability to admit when he’s goofed (did GW ever admit that?),
– a strong capacity to engage others, whether through local townhalls or with foreign leaders,
– a willingness to bring in the best to public service by checking his ego,
– an eagerness to listen and to hear what others think,
– the capacity to synthesize and understand what is happening simultaneously around the world
– a willingness to make decisions.

Above all, President Obama is showing a high degree of risk-taking, courage and integrity. He could have taken the low road, by addressing the immediate problem of the recession, but he has aimed extraordinarily high. However – and here’s the reality check – the countervailing forces of trying to please too many diverse groups, a high-achiever drive to accomplish more than what is realistic, and a very narrow window of political opportunity may exceed his gifted abilities.

We should all – regardless of political stripe and country status – hope that he succeeds.

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