Retired Bigfork General Talks National Security with Obama

By Beacon Staff

BIGFORK – Since becoming the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama has moved quickly to reorient his campaign’s strategy from the primary to the general election. At a time in which there is general consensus that conditions in Iraq are improving while battles in Afghanistan rage, the contrast between the national security policies of Obama and his opponent, John McCain, will play a fundamental role in the presidential campaign.

Among the many steps Obama has taken to hear ideas and develop his national security strategy was a roundtable discussion June 18 with retired generals and other officers to discuss foreign affairs and military issues. The invited officers included former presidential candidate and NATO Supreme Commander Gen. Wesley Clark, and former Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force Merrill “Tony” McPeak, a co-chair of Obama’s campaign. The guests also included a resident of the Flathead: retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Don Loranger of Bigfork.

Loranger was among the roughly 40 retired officers from all branches of the U.S. military who traveled from across the country to meet with Obama for a discussion that lasted two hours and 20 minutes on topics ranging from the structure of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the National Guard response to flooding in the Midwest.

Loranger recalls Obama opening the meeting by telling the assembled officers that he wanted the meeting to proceed in the same manner that it would if it was part of his presidential administration: by discussing the bad news first.

“For the next two hours,” Loranger said, “that’s just about what we did.”

The meeting’s purpose, Loranger said, was not so much for Obama to dictate his national security philosophy, but to listen to former military leaders’ ideas on the state of U.S. defenses and America’s place in the world. The officers told Obama their ideas for restoring strength to the military’s ranks and equipment amid ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They recommended the development of the national security strategy under the next president involve more military officers and less input from the civilian sector of the Pentagon. A National Guardsman from the Midwest described how so many helicopters from his division were needed in Iraq that his state had few choppers left to respond to the flooding.

Loranger, who commanded airdrops of supplies to Sarajevo during the war in the Balkans, brought up his belief that the U.S. can project military power through such humanitarian missions, as well as in combat.

While most audience members were probably Obama supporters, Loranger said, ex-military officers are not accustomed to wearing their political affiliation on their sleeves, and they scrutinized Obama’s command of national security issues – an area where Republicans have dominated in recent elections.

“That’s not an easy audience to talk to about that subject,” Loranger said. “If he had come in there and not known anything it would have been pretty obvious.”

The Democratic presidential hopeful complimented Loranger on his “Republicans for Obama” pin. Loranger’s support for Obama will be the first time in his life he has voted Democrat. A native of Havre and a University of Montana ROTC graduate, Loranger has served as the wing commander of three different Air Force bases. He has also served as a Joint Task Force Commander in Asia, charged with enforcing Iraq’s southern no-fly zone.

In 2006, Loranger unsuccessfully challenged state Sen. Verdell Jackson for his seat in the Republican primary. But Loranger offers no apologies for switching his party support in this election, and in Obama, he sees a politician capable of transcending much of the partisan gridlock that has so many Americans frustrated with the federal government.

“Some people are so committed to partisan politics they think we’ve given up our right to vote for whom we choose for President of the United States,” Loranger said. “If you list the issues out there that we confront as a society and nation – terrorism, immigration, the economy, energy – the elements to those solutions are out there, but the extreme partisanship of our politics have prevented us from solving almost any of them.”

Over the next four months, it’s clear Obama will face a steady assault from the GOP on his national security credentials. In a request for comment on Obama’s meeting with the former military officers, Republican National Committee spokesman Brian Walton criticized Obama’s failure to meet with current military leaders in Iraq:

“Barack Obama has never met with U.S commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus and hasn’t been to Iraq in over 900 days, yet he continues to blindly call for withdrawal,” Walton said. “To avoid upsetting his base of political support Obama has refused to acknowledge the successes we’ve seen from the troop surge; Obama’s position on Iraq is just one more example of his consistent desire to put his party and his own self-interest first.”

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