Top Officers Hopeful That Obama Will Bring More Realistic View Than Bush
Sunday, November 30, 2008
Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went unarmed into his first meeting with the new commander in chief -- no aides, no PowerPoint presentation, no briefing books. Summoned nine days ago to President-elect Barack Obama's Chicago transition office, Mullen showed up with just a pad, a pen and a desire to take the measure of his incoming boss.
There was little talk of exiting Iraq or beefing up the U.S. force in Afghanistan; the one-on-one, 45-minute conversation ranged from the personal to the philosophical. Mullen came away with what he wanted: a view of the next president as a non-ideological pragmatist who was willing to both listen and lead. After the meeting, the chairman "felt very good, very positive," according to Mullen spokesman Capt. John Kirby.
As Obama prepares to announce his national security team tomorrow, he faces a military that has long mistrusted Democrats and is particularly wary of a young, intellectual leader with no experience in uniform, who once called Iraq a "dumb" war. Military leaders have all heard his pledge to withdraw most combat forces from Iraq within 16 months -- sooner than commanders on the ground have recommended -- and his implied criticism of the Afghanistan war effort during the Bush administration.
But so far, Obama appears to be going out of his way to reassure them that he will do nothing rash and will seek their advice, even while making clear that he may not always take it. He has demonstrated an ability to speak the lingo, talk about "mission plans" and "tasking," and to differentiate between strategy and tactics, a distinction Republican nominee John McCain accused him of misunderstanding during the campaign.
Obama has been careful to separate his criticism of Bush policy from his praise of the military's valor and performance, while Michelle Obama's public expressions of concern for military families have gone over well. But most important, according to several senior officers and civilian Pentagon officials who would speak about their incoming leader only on the condition of anonymity, is the expectation of renewed respect for the chain of command and greater realism about U.S. military goals and capabilities, which many found lacking during the Bush years.
"Open and serious debate versus ideological certitude will be a great relief to the military leaders," said retired Maj. Gen. William L. Nash of the Council on Foreign Relations. Senior officers are aware that few in their ranks voiced misgivings over the Iraq war, but they counter that they were not encouraged to do so by the Bush White House or the Pentagon under Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"The joke was that when you leave a meeting, everybody is supposed to drink the Kool-Aid," Nash said. "In the Bush administration, you had to drink the Kool-Aid before you got to go to the meeting."
Obama's expected retention of Robert M. Gates as defense secretary and expected appointment of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state and retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones as national security adviser have been greeted with relief at the Pentagon.
Clinton is respected at the Pentagon and is considered a defense moderate, at times bordering on hawkish. Through her membership on the Senate Armed Services Committee -- sought early in her congressional career to add gravitas to her presidential aspirations -- she has developed close ties with senior military figures.
Some in the military are suspicious of "flagpole" officers such as Jones, whose assignments included Supreme Allied Commander at NATO, Marine commandant and other headquarters service, and who grew up in France and is a graduate of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. But Jones also saw combat in Vietnam and served in Bosnia.
"His reputation is pretty good," one Pentagon official said. "He's savvy about Washington, worked the Hill," and at a lean 6-foot-4, the former Georgetown basketball player "looks great in a suit."
Although Jones occasionally and privately briefed candidate Obama on foreign policy matters -- on Afghanistan, in particular, as did current deputy NATO commander Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry -- he is not considered an intimate of the president-elect.