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Petraeus had Bush's ear. Will Mike Mullen have Obama's?

The Joint Chiefs chairman may come closer to the views of the new president.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 20, 2008

Top adviser? Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen during an interview at the Pentagon Tuesday.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP

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Military advice will abound as President-elect Obama decides what course to pursue in volatile Afghanistan and Pakistan, its neighbor.

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Defense officials are conducting no fewer than three separate strategy assessments to help Mr. Obama decide on a new approach to confront the radical Islamic forces sowing unrest in the region. One report will come from Gen. David Petraeus, who came to represent the voice of the Bush administration on Iraq and who now oversees the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Another due in coming days is from Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the "war czar" at the National Security Council.

But the one that may count the most, say sources in and outside the Pentagon, is the assessment by Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. For months, the chairman has said the US must do more to reverse deteriorating security in Afghanistan – a view Obama is known to share.

The three reports may help settle the question of who at the Pentagon will have the new president's ear – and many expect Admiral Mullen to assert his position as top military adviser. General Petraeus's views held sway during the latter years of the Bush presidency, when the administration was desperate for a turnaround in Iraq. But Petraeus is now aligned in public thought with Bush policies, and Obama may feel he needs a new face to represent US military endeavors. This could well be Mullen, who is keen to restore the authority of his post, which had eroded under President Bush.

"Ultimately, the chairman is by law the principle military adviser," says Rep. Joe Sestak, (D) of Pennsylvania, who retired from the Navy in 2005 as a two-star admiral and then ran for Congress. "He alone walks into the Oval Office and says 'Here's what I believe.' "

The connection Petraeus had to the White House, which was encouraged by Mr. Bush, irked some senior officers at the Pentagon who believed they were put at a disadvantage when they tried to provide advice on the "surge" of American troops in Iraq.

Obama, whose advisers are attuned to that friction, shows signs of wanting to also restore the advisory authority of the chairman. Mullen's scope by definition is broader, including not only the challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan but also the strains on the force. Obama mentions the chairman or Joint Chiefs repeatedly in public remarks.