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


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