Page 1 of 3 US military ripe for a fight with Obama
By Mark Perry
The most intense debate in the aftermath of Barack Obama's election as the next
president of the Untied States has been over whether Robert Gates will agree to
stay on as defense secretary. Speculation on Gates' status seems to change by
the hour. "Bob wants to come back to Texas to finish his work as a university
president," a Gates friend said in the aftermath of Obama's sweeping victory
over Republican Senator John McCain. Another colleague proffers a different
story: "Bob and his wife are intent to enjoy their retirement," he says. "They
have a home in the northwest, and they would like to spend some time there. He
wants out of Washington."
The speculation over Gates' tenure has been most intense inside
the Obama transition team. The team received a request from Gates that, were he
to stay, he would want to retain some of his top civilian assistants. The
request led to concerns among the Obama transition staff: "Gates is not a
neo-con or even a hardcore Republican," a person close to the process noted,
"but the people around him sure as hell are." A former Bill Clinton
administration official who has been deployed by Obama to conduct a series of
"meet and greets" with top officials at the Pentagon scoffed at the notion of a
continuation of Gates' tenure: "The [presidential] election was a clean sweep,"
he says, "and that includes Bob Gates. It's called a change in government."
But others inside Obama's close-knit group of advisors think that a
continuation of Gates' tenure can provide Obama with a bridge to the nation's
military leadership - essential, they say, because of US troop commitments in
Iraq and Afghanistan. These advisors point out that Richard Danzig, a former
secretary of the navy and reputed front runner for the Pentagon post ("always
the smartest man in the room", as retired four-star US Marine Corps General Joe
Hoar describes him), supports a continuation in Gates' tenure. Then too, Gates
is apparently admired by Obama himself, who has been in close touch with a
number of Gates' former colleagues (dubbed "graybacks"), like Brent Scowcroft,
from the first George W Bush administration. "The graybacks have weighed in,
and they're all for Bob," a defense official says.
But regardless of whether Gates stays on as secretary of defense, the new
president faces daunting challenges in dealing with the American military. Not
the least of these is that while conservatives go to great lengths to point out
that the military is an almost exact reflection of the nation's ethnic and
gender diversity, the simple truth remains that the new president will be the
commander-in-chief of a military that is primarily southern, rural and
conservative - an exact description of the one group of Americans that voted
overwhelmingly for McCain.
The opening shot
"Mark my words," a retired general says, "the test that Barack Obama will face
in the first months of his presidency will have nothing to do with foreign
policy. It's going to come from the military and the opening shot will be the
'don't ask, don't tell' policy. The military is hard over on the issue of gays
in the military and we'll go up against him just like we did with Clinton."
The general cited anger "among the senior officer corps" about Obama's June 1,
2007, statement calling for a repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy:
"It's time to turn the page on the bitterness and bigotry that fill so much of
today's LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] rights debate," Obama said.
"The rights of all Americans should be protected - whether it's at work or
anyplace else. 'Don't ask, don't tell' needs to be repealed because patriotism
and a sense of duty should be the key tests for military service, not sexual
While Obama later retreated from this statement, saying that he would "work
through a process", influential senior military officers were not impressed.
"For some of us, Obama is viewed as Clinton two," a retired three-star officer
says. "We're afraid he looks at the military the way that Clinton did, as a
kind of social laboratory." This officer says the plan is to "tame" Obama the
same way that Clinton was tamed. The "taming of Bill Clinton" came two weeks
into his presidency, on January 25, 1993, when the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS)
showed up in the Oval Office to question his promise to allow gays to serve
openly in the military. Clinton was in a weak position: the military was
arrayed against him. JCS chairman Colin Powell offered a compromise: stop
asking and stop pursuing.
Clinton agreed, but he had little choice. As Clinton's de facto press secretary
George Stephanopoulos later noted: "Their [the JCS] message was clear. Keeping
this promise will cost you the military. Fight us and you'll lose - and it
won't be pretty." The military's victory over Clinton in the early days of his
presidency set the tone for the next eight years. On any sensitive military
subject, he took the views of the JCS into account: as later confirmed, he
couldn't "afford a break with the military".
It is unlikely that Obama will make the same mistake. He has shown particular
sensitivity to military issues and, during the campaign, surrounded himself
with a bevy of senior retired officers. "Obama set out early on to take
veterans and military issues away from McCain," a campaign aide says, "and he
succeeded. It's really amazing what he did: [former Democratic presidential
nominee John] Kerry served in the military, and the Republicans successfully
questioned his courage and patriotism. But they couldn't lay a glove on
In the end, Obama actually won a larger percentage of both the veteran and
military vote than Kerry - a stunning turnaround for a politician who knows
even less about the military than Clinton.
While Obama is likely to "kick this can [the issue of gays in the military]
down the field", in the words of one transition insider, the battle has been
joined. Recently, a group of 104 retired admirals and generals signed an appeal
urging Obama to repeal Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. The group is
led by retired Admiral Charles Larson, a former superintendent of the US Naval
Academy. "There are a lot of issues they'll [the Obama administration] have to
work out, and I think they'll have to prioritize," Larson told reporters. "But
I hope this would be one of the priority issues in the personnel area." Obama
did not comment on the letter, a signal that he would deal with more important
issues first. Iraq and Afghanistan are at the top of his agenda.
Leaving Iraq ...
The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) approved by the Iraqi cabinet on November
16 and to be voted on in parliament on Wednesday, did not surprise the Obama
government-in-waiting, as officials in Gates' office had been briefing Obama's
inner circle on the agreement for several weeks. But what was surprising, at
least for some Obama partisans, was that Bush would push for the agreement -
instead of dumping the Iraq war in Obama's lap. "The agreement is a gift for
Obama," a currently serving Pentagon officials notes. "We always thought there
were only three ways we were getting out - if we won, if we lost, or we were
invited to leave. The second option was never in play, but for many of us the
last option seemed just as remote."
For the US military, the Iraqi cabinet vote in favor of the agreement provided
an ironic twist: only one cabinet member voted against the agreement - the
minister representing the Sunni bloc in the Iraqi parliament. The vote was
passed by 27 of the 37-member cabinet, with nine members absent. The lone Sunni
dissent was registered in silence by the woman minister representing the bloc.
While the Sunni bloc keeps its distance from the American-supported Sunni
Awakening Councils, the lone "no" vote sent an unmistakable signal to senior
American officers, particularly to those who have served in Iraq's
Sunni-dominated Anbar province. "The irony is that the Shi'ites, whom we put in
charge in Baghdad and supported for years, can't wait for us to leave," one
retired marine colonel who served three tours in Iraq notes, "while the
insurgents who fought us want us to stay. What does that tell you?"
For senior military officers in Baghdad monitoring the flow of weapons into the
country, the protest of Shi'ite parties over the agreement is clear: "They
can't wait to get their hands on the Sunnis," a defense official says. "The
Anbar Awakening tops their list." That reality is obvious to the senior
officers of CENTCOM - the Central Command headquarters that oversees the Iraq
war. Even General David Petraeus, the new CENTCOM commander, credited with the
victory of the "surge", is careful in his assessment of the future, according
to a number of his colleagues and reporters who follow him. When one reporter
commented to Petraeus that it seemed the "surge" had worked, Petraeus corrected
him: "Yes, it's worked," he said, and added: "So far."
Engaging Afghanistan ...
But if the American military is under decreasing pressure in Iraq - at least
"so far" - just the opposite is true in Afghanistan, where US and North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops are straining to respond to a
burgeoning insurgency. That point was emphasized most recently by JCS chairman
Michael Mullen during a talk with a group of officers due for promotion to flag
rank. Mullen reviewed American military challenges in the Middle East, vowing
that he would continue to press "the current and incoming president" to seek a
diplomatic solution to Iran's intransigence over the nuclear issue.
Mullen recommended the same diplomatic strategy be adopted for Afghanistan: "We
have killed hundreds of Taliban fighters along the border," he said, "and they
just keep coming." Mullen's comments confirmed his September House Armed
Services Committee testimony in which he said that "we [the military] can't
kill our way to victory, and no armed forces anywhere ... can deliver these
keys alone. It requires teamwork and cooperation."
Mullen's viewpoint is shared by America's commander on the ground, General
David McKiernan, a non-West Pointer with years