Joint Chiefs Chairman 'Very Positive' After Meeting With Obama

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

But as Obama's closest national security adviser, or at least the one who will spend the most time with him, Jones is expected to follow the pattern of two military predecessors in the job, Brent Scowcroft and Colin L. Powell, who injected order and discipline to a National Security Council full of strong personalities with independent power bases.

Although exit polls did not break out active-duty voters, it is virtually certain that McCain won the military vote.

In an October survey by the Military Times, nearly 70 percent of more than 4,000 officers and enlisted respondents said they favored McCain, while about 23 percent preferred Obama. Only African American service members gave Obama a majority.

In exit polls, those who said they had "ever served in the U.S. military" made up 15 percent of voters and broke 54 percent for McCain to 44 percent for Obama. "As a culture, we are more conservative and Republican," a senior officer said.

Obama has said he will meet with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs as well as the service chiefs during his first week in office. At the top of his agenda for that meeting will be what he has called the military's "new mission" of planning the 16-month withdrawal timeline for Iraq. Senior officers have publicly grumbled about the risk involved.

"Moving forward in a measured way, tied to conditions as they continue to evolve, over time, is important," Mullen said at a media briefing four days before his Nov. 21 meeting with Obama. "I'm certainly aware of what has been said" prior to the election, he said.

The last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, clashed with the chiefs during his first sit-down with them when they opposed his campaign pledge to end the ban on gays in the military. The chiefs, some of whom held the commander in chief in thinly veiled contempt as a supposed Vietnam draft dodger, won the battle, and Clinton spent much of his two terms seen as an adversary.

But Mullen came away from the Chicago talk reassured that Obama will engage in a discussion with them, balancing risks and "asking tough questions . . . but not in a combative, finger-pointing way," one official said.

The president-elect's invitation to Mullen, whom Obama previously had met only in passing on Capitol Hill and whose first two-year term as chairman does not expire until the end of September, was seen as an attempt to establish a relationship and avoid early conflict. While some Pentagon officials believe an Iraq withdrawal order could become Obama's equivalent of the Clinton controversy over gays, several senior Defense Department sources said that Gates, Mullen and Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of the military's Central Command, are untroubled by the 16-month plan and feel it can be accomplished with a month or two of wiggle room.

These sources noted that Obama himself has said he would not be "careless" about withdrawal and would retain a "residual" force of unspecified size to fight terrorists and protect U.S. diplomats and civilians. The officer most concerned about untimely withdrawal, sources said, is the Iraq commander, Gen. Ray Odierno.

Even as the Iraq war continues, defense officials are far more worried about Afghanistan, where they see policy drift and an unfocused mission. With strategy reviews now being completed at the White House and by the chairman's office, an internal Pentagon debate is well underway over whether goals should be lowered.

Although Gen. David McKiernan, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has requested four more U.S. combat brigades, some Pentagon strategists believe a smaller presence of Special Forces and trainers for Afghan forces -- and more attention to Pakistan -- is advisable.

Bush's ideological objective of a modern Afghan democracy, several officials said, is unattainable with current U.S. resources, and there is optimism that Obama will have a more realistic view.

A number of senior officers also look with favor on Obama's call for talks with Iran over Iraq and Afghanistan, separating those issues from U.S. demands over Tehran's nuclear program.

One of the biggest long-term military issues on Obama's plate will be the defense budget, currently topping 4.3 percent of gross domestic product once war expenditures are included.

Obama has said he will increase the size of the Army and the Marine Corps, finding savings in the Iraq drawdown and in new scrutiny of spending, including on contractors, weapons programs and missile defense.

"They know the money is coming down," a Pentagon official said of the uniformed services, and many welcome increased discipline.

But it's neither the military's nature nor its role to volunteer the cuts, the official said. "It's for Congress and the administration to say 'Stop it.' "

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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