Obama and the brass

OBAMA AND THE BRASS…. During the last two Democratic administrations, there was obvious tension between the presidents and the military leaders in the Pentagon. As Mark Kleiman noted, “Under Carter and Clinton, not only the military but the civilian bureaucracies in the Pentagon were massively insubordinate, doing their level best to frustrate the purposes of those two Presidents, on topics ranging from weapons systems to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It was a much better career move for a colonel bucking for his first star or a lieutenant general bucking for his fourth to support the culture of the Building rather than the purposes of the Commander in Chief.”

Barack Obama is intent on having a stronger, more cooperative relationship with the brass. By all indications, he’s off to a good start.

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.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that tension is unavoidable. Military leaders are, the theory goes, bound to be skeptical about a young president who didn’t serve in the military, and who has articulated a withdrawal policy many in the Pentagon are skeptical of.

But there are at least two key angles to consider here. First, during the ongoing transition, Obama seems to be reassuring military leaders about his plans, and signaling to the brass, through his personnel decisions, that “he will do nothing rash and will seek their advice, even while making clear that he may not always take it.”

Second, and just as importantly, Obama has an opportunity, which he plans to fully take advantage of, to make some changes that military leaders and Pentagon officials have wanted for years, but which Bush failed to even consider. Indeed, for all of the perceived conservatism of the military, Obama’s vision and agenda for the Pentagon is far more in line with officers’ beliefs than the current president’s.

As Karen DeYoung explained, there’s an expectation among military leaders that there will be “greater realism about U.S. military goals and capabilities,” including objectives in Afghanistan, diplomacy with Iran, and increased budget discipline.

“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.”