Barack Obama will enter the White House without any military experience and with a playbook that emphasizes diplomacy, behind a president who waged two wars and presided over some of the largest-ever defense budget increases.
So, how will President Obama be received at the Pentagon? Much depends on his first moves.
One of his senior security advisers, former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), said even though the president-elect has experience on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he’ll need a strong defense team that works together well.
“He will have to pay a lot of attention to a secretary of defense and the close advisers to the secretary,” Hamilton said. “The whole military, national security establishment will be watching that with care.”
And since the military is trained to follow orders, insiders say it is receptive to the change of command.
The military needs to be ready to offer its advice while scrupulously avoiding any attempt to shape the agenda, said a senior defense official familiar with the transition. “It is to everyone’s benefit to shorten the learning curve for whoever is coming in,” he said, especially because this is the first wartime transition since 1968.
Senior officers will be ready to follow the orders of Obama, who has not stirred any detectable negative response in the military command, said Dov Zakheim, who was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon comptroller. And if they balk, one former senior officer pointed out, there are plenty of other officers to be promoted.
President Bush wasn’t shy about using the military, but his relationship with top military commanders was sometimes sour, particularly over issues related to the war in Iraq.
Early on, Bush deferred to Rumsfeld, his first defense secretary, who dumped Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki after he told Congress more troops were required for the invasion of Iraq. And while active-duty generals muted public criticism for the rest of Bush’s term, retired generals spoke out.
In 2004, retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni raised early concerns about the execution of the war. Then in 2006, six retired generals went public with their concerns.
Bush responded with a surge of forces, and extended officers’ tours of duty from 12 to 15 months for a force already strained by multiple, lengthy deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
In his book “The War Within,” Bob Woodward detailed how that decision was made over the objections of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
And failing to listen to military advice is one of the easiest ways to burn a bridge with the military, said Zakheim, now a consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton.
Retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, one of the revolting generals, supported New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s ill-fated run for the Democratic presidential nomination before becoming an adviser to Obama. But after a recent Obama national security team meeting in Richmond, Va., Eaton said he had been impressed by Obama’s listening skills.
What led to the generals’ revolt, Eaton said, was that Bush had consolidated too much power in Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney. And when power is tightly held, Eaton said, the result is a “very myopic view of the world and foreign policy.”
That has changed when Robert Gates replaced Rumsfeld as defense secretary and Adm. Michael Mullen took over as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Eaton said. And they are working better with other agencies and better understand the nature of the deteriorating war in Afghanistan.
Diplomacy and cultural awareness will be critically important to fighting insurgents along border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, said an Army lieutenant colonel who recently served there. It is vital, said the officer who spoke on condition of anonymity, to avoid publicly condemning the contributions of either country, and he hopes the next president will make a change to current practices.
Obama might enjoy a honeymoon with the Pentagon, but his relationship with it will require some careful navigation.
Issues like Iraq, which remain highly unpredictable, could disrupt relations with the military and Obama’s liberal Democratic base of support.
Despite recent talk about success, “so many of the fundamental questions in Iraq remain bitterly unresolved,” said Hamilton, now director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Security is just the first step. But political reconciliation remains distant, and continuing ethnic and regional tensions could erode the gains, Hamilton said.
The budget is another delicate issue. Obama and his team have pledged to take some time to review the issues before making drastic changes.
In Congress, however, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, is already calling for a 25 percent cut in defense spending.
With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the broader fight against terrorism, Zakheim and other experts predict defense budgets will only flatten, not decline. But because of calls to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps and the Pentagon’s plans to buy weapons already exceeds the budget, some weapons programs appear certainly in line for delays or cuts.
Obama and his advisers have said they don’t intend to make drastic cuts for early in the administration, but they will be immediately pressed with budget decisions to finance the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A potential minefield with the military for Obama, say lobbyists and analysts, would be a quick decision to take on a controversial policy such as “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
President Bill Clinton took office in 1993 pledging to end the military’s ban on gays serving in the military. But without enough congressional support, he settled on the fence-straddling policy that allowed gays to serve, as long as they did not disclose their sexual orientation. And the fight played out early in his term, burning up credibility with the military.
The Human Rights Campaign, which has lobbied to overturn the policy isn’t in a rush for Obama, who also supports repeal, to act.
“This discriminatory policy has been in place for 15 years, and we understand that it is not going to be repealed overnight,” said campaign’s communication director, Brad Luna.