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.