Obama and the Military

Examining Obama’s current and future dealings with the military brass, Steve Benen writes:

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.

This is all probably true, but I think there’s another, much more obvious, fact that gives Obama leverage over the military brass…politics. The usual comparisons being made involve Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, but Obama is in an infinitely better position than either of those two candidates. In Carter’s case, he was someone who was elected largely as an immediate response to Watergate, with his morality and squeaky clean personality, but was never taken seriously by the other halls of power, even in the Democratic Party. With Clinton, you had a new President who had only won 43% of the vote (even if it was a 3 way election, the fact remains that you don’t have a lot of leverage when 57% of all ballots go to someone other than you), and who was elected mostly on economic issues. In addition, Colin Powell was probably as well known as Clinton, and arguably more popular. He certainly carried more weight on matters of national security than Clinton.

Obama doesn’t really have these problems. His 53% of the popular vote and incredibly broad electoral victory give him a clear level of public support going in, he’s easily the most recognizable politician in the world these days, he may even be the most well known person in the entire world. He’s well respected by the political establishment, and he clearly understands how to handle the Beltway. There’s no military figure with the stature of Colin Powell at the moment, and certainly none who can stand on par with Obama. And, perhaps most importantly, the Iraq war has destroyed the Republican Party’s advantage on matters of foreign/military policy, at least for now, and have handed Obama a clear political lever to wedge against institutional opposition. It’s going to be quite a bit harder for the military to roll Obama vis a vis Iraq the way they rolled Clinton with Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

So yeah, Adm. Mullen is a bit cowed at the moment, because the brass really has no leverage on the new President. That’s a welcome change to be sure, but not something Obama should rest on. A lot of these figures, especially Mullen, are where they are on the basis of having agreed with President Bush’s views of the Iraq war, and Obama would do well to remember that, and keep the leash tight. Very tight.