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    Middle East
     Nov 25, 2008
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 orientation."

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 Barack."

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

Continued 1 2


Obama urged to forgo Iran threats
(Nov 18,'08)

Breathless in Washington
(Nov 13,'08)


1.
The evil of the US dollar

2. Great game of hunting pirates

3. The black hole in financial markets

4. Japan economists call for 'Obama bonds'

5. Judicial coup murmurs in Thailand

6. The jolly life of a pirate ring

7. Stuff happens in Iraq

8. Scandal exposes Islam's weakness

9. Fed up with Fed credit

(Nov 21-23, 2008)

 
 



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