The absence of foreign policy victory laps

Rebels have not yet forced Gaddafi’s downfall in Libya, but the current trajectory holds, the dictatorship’s demise is only a matter of time. And when it comes, the Obama administration will have yet another foreign policy and national security accomplishment to add to a fairly long list.

Politico notes today, however, that we probably won’t see the White House take much of a victory lap.

Once again, there will be no flight suit photo op or “Mission Accomplished” banner for Barack Obama.

The ouster of Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi represents yet another military victory for a president long cast as a gun-shy liberal uncomfortable with the use of force. But while Obama has claimed credit for his individual successes — and has mentioned the killing of Osama bin Laden at campaign events — he has never fully embraced the role of a president at war.

Despite defining moments that include the NATO-led air assault on Libya, the decision to increase troop strength in Afghanistan and the daring special forces raid that killed bin Laden, Obama and his advisers still appear almost resigned to the fact that it will be the economy, not his national security record, that defines his presidency and his fight for reelection.

That Obama has proven to be an effective Commander in Chief is no longer much of a question — some of this president’s most notable accomplishments have come overseas. But the public doesn’t, and won’t, see much in the way of chest-thumping bravado. That the president’s strategies seem to be effective, more often than not, seems to be enough. Obama doesn’t feel the need to put on a flight-suit.

National Security Council official Ben Rhodes put it this way: “We have a strong record across the board, whether it is taking the fight to Al Qaeda, taking on Osama bin Laden, winding down the war in Iraq, turning the corner in Afghanistan and helping lead an international effort to prevent a massacre in Libya and to support the Libyan people as they brought an end to the Qadhafi regime.” And even this doesn’t mention some of the administration’s counter-terrorism successes.

Why does the administration choose not to invest more energy in patting its own back? Politico says Obama “has never fully embraced the role of a president at war.” I haven’t the foggiest idea what that means.

If I had to guess, I’d say the reality of this dynamic comes down to two things. One, Obama doesn’t bring a dance-in-the-end-zone style to his responsibilities. Clinton didn’t invest a lot of energy in celebrating his successes in Bosnia and Kosovo, either. Bush tried to milk national security for political gain, and maybe the president found it distasteful and prefers a classier approach.

And two, it probably wouldn’t matter much anyway — Americans’ interests are focused so heavily on the economy, nothing else sways public attitudes. In 2004, Bush had the worst jobs record of any president since Hoover, but he convinced voters national security was the top issue. If the public was willing to ignore all the Americans killed by terrorism on his watch, Bush said he was more credible on the issue than the decorated combat veteran running against him. In 2011, unemployment trumps everything.

But that leads to another question: should Obama and his team do more chest-thumping and take more victory laps? Should they try to get the credit they deserve, and reinforce the image of Obama as a skillful and effective leader? I don’t think it’s a stretch to say a Republican president with a record as impressive as Obama’s would be talking about little else.

I suspect the White House could do more on this front. Four years ago, reflecting on Clinton’s national security victories, my boss Paul Glastris wrote, “[T]here’s a reason these victories happened on a Democrat’s watch. They were the result of a strategy based on liberal principles: that you go to war with profound reluctance, only after all other options have been exhausted, all points of view heard, all evidence weighed, and all necessary allies brought on board.”

If that sounds familiar, it’s because the same assessment could be used to describe Obama. Even if national security ranks low on the list of public priorities, there’s value in reminding folks these Democratic principles are the right ones.