Obama’s power grab at the Pentagon

By Michael Hastings
January 10, 2012

President Barack Obama’s decision last week to cut the defense budget by $487 billion over the next 10 years was met with cries of derision from his critics (“inexcusable,” said GOP front-runner Mitt Romney) and shrugs of acceptance from his supporters. The reduction’s two headlines: 1. One hundred thousand troops are being chopped from the Marine Corps and Army; 2. The entire U.S. foreign policy focus will begin to shift from the Near East to the Far East (anxieties about China having replaced—or at least settled alongside—our permanently ingrained fears of Middle Eastern terror). The cuts themselves, though, are less significant as fiscal policy than as a statement about President Obama’s relationship with the Pentagon: Barack is taking it over.

That President Obama wasn’t really in charge of the Defense Department might come as something of a shock. He is, after all, the commander in chief. But considering the size of the nation’s defense apparatus, it shouldn’t. The Pentagon has become the 51st state—America’s largest bureaucracy, employing three times more people than the population of Vermont and Wyoming combined. Its capital is the Five-Sided Puzzle Palace, as my journalist friends fondly call it, where 23,000 work daily. Its other residents are the 3.2 million military, intelligence and civilian personnel who live inside its borderless confines around the globe. And since the attacks of September 11th, the influence of the Pentagon’s constituency has grown exponentially, its budget increasing from $295 billion to $549 billion, sucking up some 54 percent of federal tax dollars.

The Pentagon has found plenty of ways to spend all that cash. In 2011, the DoD blew $20.2 billion on air conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan, equivalent to the entire NASA budget. There are more members of the U.S. military bands—and more sailors on a single aircraft carrier—than in the State Department’s entire foreign service. Up close, the largesse of the Pentagon is hard to miss as well: When top generals visit a country overseas, they often travel in their own private jets, with an entourage of dozens. Top diplomats fly commercial, business–or first-class, if they’re lucky. (Meanwhile, in Foggy Bottom, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton forbade business-class travel for State officials traveling to Afghanistan in 2010, citing budgetary concerns, department officials have told me privately.)

The Pentagon’s unprecedented power and influence turned it into a fierce rival of the White House. And so when President Obama crossed the Potomac last Friday Thursday, he was on a mission to reclaim enemy territory. In an unusual move, he made the budget announcement from within the Pentagon itself. It was something of a triumph that he chose to do it there. Upon arriving in Washington three years ago, Obama had a very different reception from the brass. The building was populated by Republicans. The last three defense secretaries had been with the GOP, and the rank and file were still supporters of the previous administration. They were heavily invested in the Iraq War—a war Obama had called “dumb.” At one of his first meetings in the Pentagon in January 2009, as I recount in my new book The Operators, he met General Stanley McChrystal, who would later confide to his staff that Obama appeared “uncomfortable.” A senior official at the meeting described the president as “intimidated by the crowd.” Months after the meeting, the Pentagon’s leadership would take advantage of this perceived weakness, pushing the president to escalate the war in Afghanistan and tripling the scope of the conflict.

The tension between the president and his generals reached its climax in June 2010 in the weeks after I published a Rolling Stone story exposing the contempt the military leadership had for their civilian counterparts. The president fired McChrystal and replaced him with General David Petraeus (tying Petraeus to the fate of the doomed mission, an association that Petraeus had wanted to avoid, according to McChrystal). Within the next year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates would retire as well (but not before Obama twice overruled his advice—on Libya and the Bin Laden raid) and was replaced by Democratic ally Leon Panetta. Petraeus came home from Kabul in June 2011, and was quickly defrocked and installed at the CIA (preventing the popular general’s potential and oft-rumored run for the presidency, another outcome the White House wanted to avoid). When Petraeus pushed to move troops to eastern Afghanistan, rather than bringing them home, Obama overruled him, prompting General John Allen (the man there now) to admit the president was no longer following the military’s advice. Either by accident or by design, the young president had neutered his formidable opposition. The celebrity generals were gone, a friendly Defense Secretary was in and a string of what were perceived as foreign policy successes had been accomplished.

There were other signs of the president’s new confidence. Tucked into Obama’s defense strategy—which he unveiled the same day as the cuts–was another not-so-subtle rebuke of the military’s much beloved counterinsurgency doctrine, which accounted for much of the $1.2 trillion poured into Iraq and Afghanistan. The new defense strategy called for “limited counterinsurgency”—a concept akin to being “slightly pregnant,” as Wired’s Spencer Ackerman observed. Keeping a reduced counterinsurgency initiative was a sop to the brass who had built their careers on the past decade of war, but not a convincing one. It was a stronger signal that the true lesson of the past decade was to not get involved in nation building debacles. “For the Army’s four stars to suggest Americans should treat the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan as a rich source of lessons for future war is tantamount to insisting the 1915 Gallipoli Campaign or the 1920 Sunday shoot-up of Irish civilians by British Soldiers at Croke Park in Dublin were successes,” retired Colonel Douglas Macgregor told me in an email. “A smaller defense budget is not only inevitable; it’s a national economic necessity.”  There’s even a possibility that President Obama might double the size of the cuts, taking out a total of $1 trillion. It seems he’s no longer intimidated by the crowd.

Now that the White House has the political power to control its military moves, the question is: Can the administration pull it off in 2012 and beyond? The Pentagon and the president may want to keep the focus on China over the next decade, but there’s going to be serious pressure to get drawn back into other misadventures in the Middle East and Central Asia. Our relationship with Pakistan sometimes feels as if we’re one Times Square bomber away from a serious military retaliation against Islamabad. We’ll have to avoid going to war with Iran, a prospect that, frighteningly, most Republican candidates seem to be rooting for.

Which, come to think of it, is perhaps the biggest threat to Obama’s newly restrained military. The overblown Iran rhetoric could easily hamstring a president from either party, narrowing the debate to solely military solutions. And a front-running Mitt Romney has already said he wants to increase the size of the military—the kind of insane, fiscally irresponsible promise that will fill the airwaves over the next 11 months should he get the nomination. All of that threatens what’s under way—reducing the 51st state to the size of Guam, or maybe the Virgin Islands. If we did that by 2020, we’d save a bunch of money. And we’d likely save a bunch of lives.

*Correction: This piece originally stated Barack Obama announced these changes at the Pentagon on Friday of last week. The event took place on Thursday.

PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks on the Defense Strategic Review at the Pentagon near Washington, Jan. 5, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed

23 comments

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Go ahead Mr. President, piss off the military/industrial complex. They’re the ones with all the really BIG guns.

Posted by Larry2012 | Report as abusive

[...] came across the Reuters wire Monday: …when President Obama crossed the Potomac last Friday, he was on a mission to reclaim [...]

How, exactly, can the Commander-in-Chief of all of the armed forces of the United States of America make a “power play” at the Pentagon? Is Mr. Hastings unaware that the United States has a civilian leadership and that its military answers to that leadership? Or maybe Mr. Hastings is confused about what the title Commander-in-Chief represents (it means Obama is in charge of the entirety of our military)?

Posted by Perspecticus | Report as abusive

$20 billion on air conditioning… Romney finds it “inexcusable.” Hope that inconvenient fact comes out during the debates.

Anyway, I thought soldiers were supposed to be tough. Search on Google Images for ‘iraq tent air conditioners’ (not in quotation marks) for some good photos.

Your tax dollars hard at work… just keep on voting for the Neocons so they can squander your hard-earned money. How do you like working an extra couple of weeks per year just to pay for government waste like this?

Posted by Nullcorp | Report as abusive

[...] Obama’s power grab at the Pentagon [...]

> “54 percent of federal tax dollars”

WOW. Carry on like that and you’ll find out what happened to the British Empire after about 1905…

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

This article would have been worth the read if the author would have included similar statistics for the other government institutions that exist. How many are employed to adminisiter medicaid, medicair, social security, and federal disability? How many are employed by the IRS. Do taxpayers receive less, equal, or more benefit from these institutions than from the military.

The $20b spent on A/C…what percentage is that of the Pentagon’s budget. It reeks of cowardice for a US resident to sit in his temperature controlled office typing away on a laptop the troops that protect and preserve my rights should not be allowed some moments of comfort in between risking their lives and spending years away from their family.

Defense spending as a % of GDP has remained consistent for nearly 100 years…this article needs to be set in the context of all goverment spending to be of any use at all.

Posted by pk3 | Report as abusive

[...] Obama's power grab at the Pentagon The cuts themselves, though, are less significant as fiscal policy than as a statement about President Obama's relationship with the Pentagon: Barack is taking it over. That President Obama wasn't really in charge of the Defense Department might come … Read more on Reuters Blogs (blog) [...]

It really is pathetic to see every night without fail what the media has become. An extension of a Socialist political party as opposed to one of the most important checks and balances our founding fathers set up for us. Is there a single journalist left in the United States? If there is he or she has no future in the Media. What we have now are crafty Lobbyists. And does it really matter for what party? lol Nope not really. This clown is talking about a 51st state as far as the Pentagon is concerned. And I am sure to an extent that was the case. He brags how he got McChrystal fired…how pathetic. Remember how much media coverage that story got until the man was fired. As was stated Our President is the supreme leader of our military while in office and I highly doubt anybody made him uncomfortable.. He certainly doesn’t lack confidence. If he wants to talk about too much power and one that is totally ruining our country. What about the Monster our Media has become? For enough money and favors they could get Winnie The Pooh elected. And then openly brag about it like they did with our latest President.

Today’s media is by far the greatest influence on our politics and our country’s policy’s in every segment of our government. They report and twist the facts to what fits their political agenda and they simply ignore what doesn’t. It makes for a very misinformed general public which then votes in people that are not qualified to coach a T ball team. Of course any American that doesn’t know this at this point is living under a rock. As it is not even hidden anymore. No I’m not a republican. I just don’t like to be told what my opinions are supposed to be. Will there be a time in my life time when my fellow Americans will wake up and stop acting like a bunch cattle heading to the butcher?

I hope so.

Of course this will either not get posted or will be deleted. lol What a bunch of clowns.

Posted by JerryB08 | Report as abusive

The author of this commentary strikes this reader as being extremely partisan and anti-military. Partisanship is not only starting to be a trend in these pages, it is leaking into the news reporting as well. I’ve read Reuters for years because they keep the bias out of the reporting. It makes the reporting trustworthy….in a journalistic world that incresingly is untrustworthy.
Partisan viewpoints in the commentaries are fine, but lately the bias is becoming one-sided. How about some balance, Reuters?

Posted by abb68 | Report as abusive

abb68: You are making the same mistake that far too many on the right constantly make: if the message doesn’t support rightwing ideology then the source is liberal leaning and can’t be trusted. The flip side of that is: only information that supports rightwing ideology can be true. And that postulate is extremely dangerous. It never seems to occur to too many on the right that sometimes the facts, the truth, do not support the right’s positions, and can actually serve to undermine them.

Did you not read, 54% of the federal budget is military!!! Hello! How much more spending on the military do you want? Did you not notice what happened to the Soviet Union when they spent themselves into oblivion by pouring more money into their military than they could afford? How does it make our country stronger by forcing us into a position where we can’t pay our obligations? Please. Some simple, unemotional, common sense is needed in dealing with our runaway military spending. Having the attitude that you can’t spend too much on the military is dangerously foolish and will inevitably lead to disaster, and that seems to be the Republicans’ position. I’m just grateful that Obama has grown him a pair and is doing the hard task that no Republican has the brains or guts to do. And it HAS to be done. It’s not optional, that is if you care about our country remaining strong.

Posted by doggydaddy | Report as abusive

My boy spent 15 months in Iraq, as a Private First Class,living in a tin walled room that was smaller than most inmate’s cells. It gets well over 138+ degrees there and he was wearing full body armour to protect him from the snipers. He was a combat engineer, driving a bull dozer, sent to rebuild, not to kill people. Jersey Boy who watched the towers fall while in high school. He IS the 1% who makes the sacrifices for the REST OF US. Perhaps MR Reed can think of a better way for Congress to “waste” our money. Solindra perhaps? Maybe they should cut off the AC where he works and see how “tough” he is?

Posted by JrsyGrl | Report as abusive

As conservative as I am, and thankful for the sacrifices our troops make, the spending is totally out of control. If the federal government doesn’t totally re-assess and massively shrink its financial obligations across the board (and do it SOON), the results will be rather disastrous. It boggles my mind how anyone could think spending should go up instead of down.

Posted by ewilc773 | Report as abusive

I think the military could dial it back in areas that do not affect readiness or projection of power.

However, Iran is not taking its cues from us. If Iran gets the bomb, they will not have all the fail-safes we have when it comes to using it, or worse, selling it to terrorists.

Iran will have the power to wipe countries off the face of the earth. Do we really want to see that happen?

One thing peaceniks never get is that there are evil people running countries. They need no provoking from the United States. We are not responsible for the rise of these despots and fundamentalists. They follow a religion that directs them to kill “infidels”. We did not write the Koran.

Iran must be stopped before they have that capability. There is only one country that has the will and the wherewithal to stop them. Yeah, it’s us.

Posted by czervik7 | Report as abusive

abb68, This was an editorial under Reuters “Opinion” category and was not billed as reporting.

Posted by JonDW | Report as abusive

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We’re bored of your perpetual war/central banking model. You make me sick. My name is real.

Posted by charlesfrith | Report as abusive

There are some expenses that just don’t make any sense. Why keep pouring money on Pakistan or Egypt? Keeping that kind of friends is risky and no matter how much ‘help’ you give them (or not) you will be end as the enemy anyway once this become convenient in their domestic figths. So tune your help to a few bucks that shows your generosity with the population, knowing that no matter how much you give, they will never be a truly reliable ally.

Posted by Gemorace | Report as abusive

A couple of observations. The focus on money spent on air conditioning with the implied wastefullness is intentionally sloppy journalism with the agenda of justification of Obama’s cuts. How much of that was for computer rooms, munitions logistics equipment cooling, etc? Versus personnel quarters? Next, the implication that the ‘bad generals’ (are all generals bad in Mr. Hastings’ eyes?) took advantage of an untested and ‘uncomfortable’ Obama to push their agenda (isn’t he supposed to be ‘the smartest guy in the room? how did this happen?) fits right in with Hastings’ view of the imagined adversarial relationship between a commander-in-chief and the general staff. Or does that only come into play with Obama? Or liberal / progressives? Or Democratic presidents? This is pretty transparent propaganda.

Posted by wildbiker | Report as abusive

[...]  Obama’s job approval continues to plummet. Michael Hastings on Obama’s attempt to regain control of the Pentagon.The EU and Japan are planning to embargo oil from Iran.  Similar Posts:A.M. Links: Paul Ryan [...]

So mr. hastings thinks continuing down the path of reducing the size of the millitary drastically will make it look less ominous, make future presidents less confident in using it as an invading force (because of course all republican presidents are trigger happy invaders) and therefore we will save a “lot of lives.” hmmm. reduce the size of the forces that protect us. typical socialist dem. always thinking no one will everrr attack us… (because everyone knows THAT never happens) always thinking the army is only used for invasions. always nieve. always shortsighted. the military spends no more than all the BS socialist entitlement programs. you want to know what the difference is? the military is worth it. it matters. giving a fat 60 year old wendys drive thru eater a bunch of pills and free health insurance isnt. people like you will let this country die from being perceived as weak and attacked repeatedly. people like you are too cowardly to see this war on terror through. people like you will risk attack on our homeland to save a buck to give it to acorn. articles like this spread the kind of cowardice message that will be the end of our nation. America will have to spend the money to defend itself in every way neccessary or it will fall. barack hussein obama, our child president is not defending this nation and is crippling it, making it look soft, weak, and going around the world apologizing for it. and people like you put that child in office. you should be ashamed of yourself. he party’s with thugs like jay-z and then goes over to the pentagon and cuts some money from the defense budget, cripples the country even more and then feels good about it. I dont know about you but I didnt spend 25 years in a church that preeched “GD the USA.” I dont know about you but my father was installing marxist republics in africa. all you naieve liberals socialists will be the END of us all. may god have mercy on us.

Posted by mill543 | Report as abusive

From NPR:

“Why does it cost so much? To power an air conditioner at a remote outpost in land-locked Afghanistan, a gallon of fuel has to be shipped into Karachi, Pakistan, then driven 800 miles over 18 days to Afghanistan on roads that are sometimes little more than improved goat trails.”

Posted by Nullcorp | Report as abusive

All of you should remember that the mightiest military force that the world has ever seen has been defeated in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iraq by dissidents who had no sophisticated aircraft, smart bombs and guided missiles, drones, tanks, warships, nuclear-powered submarines or aircraft carriers. Ask yourself, “Has 45% of our national budget has been well spent?” Can you honestly reply, “Yes!”

Posted by IRATESCEPTIC | Report as abusive

The fact is the military has so many civilian employees and venders that are just suckling the governments teat that we can’t afford it anymore. (Remember haliburton charging the govt $10 a gallon of gas in iraq?) So much of our military is contractor supported that now the president has to make a lot of hard choices. He is not swinging an ax at these things, he is trying to strike the best balance of trimming fat to get us where we need to be. Now all those crying of entitlement cost our government spends more than 50% of the budget on the military and entitlements to our veterans for their sacrifice to us. (see pie chart http://www.warresisters.org/pages/piecha rt.htm) 30% on social services which include programs for schools to educate kids and keep them off the street. If we don’t invest in the children we pay the price later on.If we don’t have healthy citizens they can’t produce and work. Why do you think we keep importing scientists from other countries fund them then they ultimately take the knowledge back to their home. Who is going to figure out new tech to keep America on the forefront of innovation if we don’t invest now. It pisses a lot of people off (rightfully so) that no matter what ails them they drag themselves to work while some slacker stays home doing nothing. I say please look at facts before you take it out on the guy who inherited a s#it storm and is trying to turn it around. The Medicare medicaid budget is so small considering. Fact we had a surplus under Clinton, fact we now are in debt because of the following administrations. Entitlements were not a problem then and are not a problem now. The average ceo makes 1000x more than the average employee GE made over a billion yet paid NO taxes, does no one see a problem with that? The real problem is Americans don’t even have a real say in their government anymore yet we can armchair quarteback at the kids who have the balls to stand up and exorcise their right to free speech and are doing something about it. Oh and the job creators can get a tax break after they start doing their jobs and start creating them until then, 30% tax like the rest of us. Fund a smart military, invest in the children, put the slackers to work, healthcare for the ill so they can get back to work. No matter how you slice the government will spend money, they are supossed to not make money create a surplus that get eaten up by the connected few fat cats . Imagine we would’ve privatized Social Security then the bankers wouldve gotten it all. That’s who we should be mad at. Oh one last tid bit, the government lends money to banks at 3% , the banks then put the money in a savings that is 6% in our government, don’t You wish you could do that? So our government is paying the banks to borrow money from them! Thank your lobbyists funded by corporations for that.

Posted by consciouscool | Report as abusive

[...] Obama’s power grab at the Pentagon [...]

[...] Obama’s power grab at the Pentagon [...]

Not sure where Micheal Hastings and consciouscool are geting their numbers from, but look at the president’s proposed budget for FY 2012. The US Government is planning to spend 6.31% of the budget on interest payments on our national debt (no principal), but plans to take a chainsaw to the 4.16% the military spends on personnel. The military is no longer the biggest budget item, those that think iit is are living in yesteryear (It’s time to come home from Woodstock). It’s just that only 1% of Americans have served in the military and the 99 percenters feel justified in kicking dirt in their faces to preserve their own entitlements. Look at the numbers from the President’s own budget, its a fiscal eye opener, hard to believe we’ll spend more on social security than we will on current military expenditures. Check the numbers at http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget)or  (WWW.Federalbudget.com) who pull their data directly ( supposedly) from the US Treasury Dept. If we were to look at the President’s own budget we will see he has allocated a total of 9.78% for Veteran care and 19.27% for all other Military expenditures for a total Military outlay of 29.05%. If we were to compare that to entitlements 20.04% social security, 12.88% Medicare, 7.28% medicaid, other health 1.42%, 1.06% health research,Other income Security 5.67%, Food Stamps 2.83%, Earned Income Credit 1.87%, housing assistance 1.59% and 2.34% on education for a total outlay of 54.64% on entitlement programs. Entitlements have almost doubled what we are spending on defense and our elected officials (dems and repubs)continue to ignore the real problem.

Posted by kennif | Report as abusive

JerryB08, What’s wrong with socialism? It works in Sweden, whose budget balances despite having free and excellent medical services, free education, generous social security and unemployment benefits. Further, there are NO poor in Sweden, unlike the good ole US of A that has 46 million citizens living below the poverty line. Shame on you!

Posted by IRATESCEPTIC | Report as abusive

JerryB08, What’s wrong with socialism? It works in Sweden, whose budget balances despite having free and excellent medical services, free education, generous social security and unemployment benefits. Further, there are NO poor in Sweden, unlike the good ole US of A that has 46 million citizens living below the poverty line. Shame on you!

Posted by IRATESCEPTIC | Report as abusive

What about the trillions of U.S. taxpayer dollars spent bailing out the Eurotrash Socialists for the past 95 years? And for the most part everytime theres a international crises all the pacifists start sniveling for the U.S. military to do something. I would rather give my taxes to the military industrial complex than the welfare industrial complex!

Posted by Bouncy | Report as abusive

[...] on the committee, also has taken tons of cash? Issa is awful on everything, not just this issue) Obama’s power grab at the Pentagon (this is a good thing) Why Christian Science Monitor stories have too many links, wrong ones [...]

[...] propagandist Michael Hastings has yet another credulous story attempting to smear the United States military, a Reuters piece [...]