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Sometimes Continuity Trumps Change

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Obama will have to decide by January 2010 whether to reappoint Bernanke. The decision could hinge on a number of factors, including how the economy does in the coming year, whether the two men develop a good rapport, Obama's view on whether Bernanke should have been more aggressive in preventing a crisis and how eager Obama is to put a Democrat in the job.

A Troop Withdrawal Debate

On Thursday, Mullen sent a note to his staff members, urging them to assist the Obama team. "Transitions of administrations have in the past proven challenging and even awkward," he wrote. "Our duty will be to remain apolitical."

As Obama's chief military adviser for at least the next year, Mullen will lay out options for Iraq and Afghanistan, define the global risks the military faces, weigh the strain on the force and advise on budget priorities. Mullen moved early to create a Joint Staff transition team for the handover period. "My goal is to be foundational -- and sort of a rock during that change," he said in October 2007.

On the two wars, Mullen's views align broadly with those of the president-elect: He sees an urgent need to devote more troops and resources to Afghanistan, and he supports continuing troop reductions from Iraq. But there are also important differences: Although Obama has long cast Afghanistan as the only legitimate war to pursue in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Mullen's priorities for that country are driven more by the escalating insurgency since 2006 than by any sense that Iraq is the wrong war for U.S. troops.

In Mullen's ranking of military priorities, Iraq takes precedence, then Afghanistan, followed by finding ways to reduce the overall strain on the nation's fighting forces. Unlike Obama, who pledges to withdraw U.S. combat brigades from Iraq by mid-2010, Mullen opposes any drawdown timeline there as "dangerous," saying reductions must depend on conditions on the ground.

Mullen's view coincides with that of Gen. David H. Petraeus, the former top U.S. commander in Iraq who now heads U.S. Central Command, with responsibility for operations in both war zones.

Obama's relationship with Mullen and other military advisers could prove smooth and productive if Obama takes the pragmatic approach that his advisers are indicating, allowing each side to adjust at the margins, defense experts said. But if Obama presses for the withdrawal of two brigades per month, conflict is inevitable, they warn.

"That would be hard for Mullen, exceedingly hard for Petraeus, and almost impossible for [Gen. Ray] Odierno," who replaced Petraeus as the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Peter D. Feaver, a national security official in the Clinton and Bush administrations and professor at Duke University. "That would be a civil-military crisis."

Petraeus, who has wielded great influence after his success overseeing the troop "surge" in Iraq, will remain a pivotal figure well into the Obama administration. His appointment as chief of Central Command lasts for three years. If Mullen is reappointed in 2009, Obama can decide on the next chairman in 2011, and Petraeus is considered one of the most highly qualified officers for that job.

"Petraeus will make every effort to avoid a confrontation. But he does have that independent credibility because he's been very successful, and because of the personal attacks by the left wing of the Democratic Party, where Obama came from, Obama will have to treat him very gingerly," said Thomas Donnelly, a defense expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

During Petraeus's highly publicized congressional testimony in the fall of 2007, Obama, then campaigning for the Democratic nomination, criticized what he considered the shifting standards for the U.S. mission in Iraq. "We have now set the bar so low that modest improvement in what was a completely chaotic situation . . . is considered success," he said. "And it's not."

Although it may seem that Obama's early opposition to the Iraq war puts him at odds with Mullen and Petraeus, that overlooks the fact that many military officers were unsure about the war at the outset, said Rep. James P. Moran Jr., a Virginia Democrat who sits on the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense. And there is considerable agreement with Obama that there needs to be a greater emphasis on diplomacy, civilian aid and counterinsurgency techniques to augment conventional military action.


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