Testing The Young President

by dday

A day after the Iraqi Cabinet approved a withdrawal agreement that would remove US forces entirely from the country by the end of 2011, the White House is trying to snooker the press by saying that they agreed only to "aspirational dates." There is nothing aspirational about this agreement. It is a firm deadline for withdrawal that wouldn't even allow for residual forces in the country.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is out there today claiming that no we can't leave on this kind of schedule. This is just the beginning of the pushbacks that we can expect to see from the military as we move into a new Administration.

The U.S. military would require two to three years to remove its roughly 150,000 troops and equipment from Iraq safely, and the timing of that withdrawal should be based on security conditions on the ground, the nation's top military officer said today.

"To remove the entire force would be, you know, two to three years," Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a Pentagon news conference.

While Mullen said that he and the top commanders for Iraq and the region, Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Ray Odierno, were "comfortable" with the status of forces agreement signed with Iraq today, he described some logistical hurdles to a U.S. troop withdrawal along a fixed timeline.

"We have 150,000 troops in Iraq right now. We have lots of bases. We have an awful lot of equipment that's there. And so we would have to look at all of that tied to, obviously, the conditions that are there, literally the security conditions," he said.

"Clearly, we'd want to be able to do it safely."

This isn't some option thrown out at a briefing. This is a signed agreement between the US and Iraq that has very strict demands on withdrawal. Mullen is treating it like some war game scenario that he doesn't like. And he wants a word with Obama.

Mullen emphasized that he still believes any U.S. troop reductions should be based on the levels of violence in Iraq - a position that runs counter to the official Iraqi stance.

Anticipating possible policy shifts on Iraq under the Obama administration, Mullen indicated the Joint Staff was planning for a range of options. "We're always taking into consideration plans based on what we understand possibilities might be," he said.

"President-elect Obama has also said is that he would seek the counsel of myself and the Joint Chiefs before he made any decisions. And so I look forward to that discussion, look forward to the engagement," he said.

This lays the groundwork to undermine the agreement, and to push the President-elect in that effort. And by the way, the most likely outcome of this is to erode support in the Iraqi Parliament, which only trusts the US as an honest broker because of the presence of Obama. If the agreement is vacated there will be a very early showdown between militia and the occupying forces, which could prove deadly for US troops and embarrassing to the incoming President.

They have a word for this, I believe - sabotage. And this isn't the only area of military/national security issues where we might see something similar. While Obama and the military may be able to salvage a productive working relationship, we have examples like the Air Force general who is already pushing Obama on the missile defense boondoggle:

The Air Force general who runs the Pentagon's missile defense projects said that American interests would be "severely hurt" if President-elect Obama decided to halt plans developed by the Bush administration to install missile interceptors in Eastern Europe.

Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering III, director of the Missile Defense Agency, told a group of reporters Wednesday that he is awaiting word from Obama's transition team on their interest in receiving briefings [...]

"What we have discovered is that a lot of the folks that have not been in this administration seem to be dated, in terms of the program," he said. "They are kind of calibrated back in the 2000 time frame and we have come a hell of a long way since 2000. Our primary objective is going to be just, frankly, educating them on what we have accomplished, what we have been able to do and why we have confidence in what we are doing."

Note the framing in terms of how American interests will be "severely hurt" if the incoming President, who's totally ignorant about us big boys and our big toys, by the way, cancels this program. Indeed, the contractors and the military-industrial complex are already gearing up to push back hard if one dime of military spending is cut.

The uniformed services are trying to lock in the next administration by creating a political cost for holding the line on defense spending. Conservative groups are hoping to ramp up defense spending as a tool to limit options for a Democratic Congress and president to pass new, and potentially costly, social programs, including health care reform.

They also like the idea of creating an unrealistically high baseline of expectations for defense spending that will allow them to claim President Obama has cut defense spending.

Let us be clear: There is no indication that the president-elect intends to cut defense spending, and indeed, during his campaign he promised to increase the size of the ground forces, which makes an increase in spending almost inevitable. As with any transition, there will be some adjustments to specific programs, but cutting individual weapon systems is not and has never been synonymous with cutting spending overall.

There are so many things wrong with this emerging process that it is hard to address the issue concisely. Promoting overspending on defense in order to forestall popular social spending is undemocratic - it creates a false tension between national security and other public policy goals.

The informal alliance between the services and conservative think tanks threatens to further politicize the military. The abuse of national security arguments to win political arguments is both morally suspect and threatens the security of the nation by delinking strategic assessment from public policy.

And now there's this Mullen incident, which is very reminiscent of how the JCS rolled Clinton in 1993 on the subject of gays in the military.

In yesterday's 60 Minutes interview, which had a lot of positive signs in it (including Obama's desire to keep moving forward on a new energy economy despite falling oil prices, to dismiss neo-Hooverist griping about deficit spending and instead use government to stimulate the economy, to overhaul the auto industry, and more), Obama was clear that he would have his national security team execute a drawdown policy in Iraq as soon as he entered office. Mullen is already laying down the marker that he disagrees. This tension will also spill over to the intelligence community, as has been ably covered here. One of the brightest moments in the interview was this exchange:

Kroft: There are a number of different things that you could do early pertaining to executive orders. One of them is to shutdown Guantanamo Bay. Another is to change interrogation methods that are used by U.S. troops. Are those things that you plan to take early action on?

Mr. Obama: Yes. I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that. I have said repeatedly that America doesn't torture. And I'm gonna make sure that we don't torture. Those are part and parcel of an effort to regain America's moral stature in the world.

That is excellent news, and yet there's still the matter of implementation, and without new leadership at the top, expect similar Admiral Mullen-like scenarios as Obama attempts to climb out of the muck of the Bush Administration.

"I am confident President-elect Obama understands the need for new leadership of the intelligence community and will appoint competent, capable people who will work aggressively to ensure the safety and security of Americans without undermining our laws and Constitution," Feingold said in the statement.

"For eight years, the current Administration has shown contempt for the rule of law, including in intelligence-related matters, while repeatedly refusing to work cooperatively with Congress. At the same time, the Administration has failed to develop comprehensive strategies to protect our nation against our most immediate threat, al Qaeda and its affiliates. New leadership is needed to move our intelligence policies in the right direction," Feingold's statement concludes.

It's quite something when you see a headline like Democratic Pressure on Obama to Restore the Rule of Law. But this is not totally about Obama's instincts by themselves, but the need to fight against and, in some cases, clear out those who may have more loyalty to the status quo than following the orders of their new chief executive. This has historically been an issue for Democratic Presidents in the modern age, and in this incoming Administration it will be no different. If Obama thinks he can just use his own personality - or force of character - to stop the challenges from inside his own government, I wouldn't call him naive, but let's say he'd be shouldering a heavy burden. One that he plans to make heavier by seeding the government with even more Republicans at every level.

This is something that Obama needs to think about, IMO. A "Team of Rivals" government is a nice theory on paper, but Lincoln's era was quite different - the real "rivals" split off and formed their own government and seceded from the Union, and Lincoln's political foes were kind of thrown together by circumstance. Obama is doing this by choice, and he had better be prepared to be undermined at the highest levels. In many respects, it's already happening.