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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Top adviser? Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen during an interview at the Pentagon Tuesday.
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    Change of guard: At a ceremony at the MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., last month, Gen. David Petraeus (l.), the new head of the US Central Command, shook hands with outgoing head Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, looked on.
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Military advice will abound as President-elect Obama decides what course to pursue in volatile Afghanistan and Pakistan, its neighbor.

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.

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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.

"I've said during this campaign, and I stick to this commitment, that as soon as I take office I will call in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, my national security apparatus, and we will start executing a plan that draws down our troops, particularly in light of the problems that we're having in Afghanistan, which has continued to worsen," Obama said on a "60 Minutes" interview shown Sunday.

A senior defense official confirmed that Obama had made a short call to the chairman in the days after the election, another sign that Obama wants to establish a rapport with Mullen.

All of this will have a bearing as Obama makes decisions about military strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and if he keeps his promise to remove troops from Iraq within 16 months. A new agreement between the US and Iraq, not yet finalized, aims to remove all US troops by the end of 2011. This is twice the amount of time than what Obama had promised in his campaign.

Mullen said in a press conference this week that it would take two to three years to remove the roughly 150,000 US troops from Iraq, and that the timing of that withdrawal should be based on security conditions on the ground.

The three assessments were ordered up by the respective officers so they could be ready to give advice to the new president. It is unclear what any one of them would say, but they are expected to point up some contrasts.

"There will be tension between trying to get more forces to Afghanistan quickly and the requirements that the commanders in Iraq feel that they have in order to get through a very important year in Iraq," Eric Edelman, the senior policy official at Defense, said last week.

Mullen appears to be quietly asserting himself. Noting this week that there will be differences among the reports, he said it will be his job to provide the new president with conclusions that take the other assessments into account.

"While there is a level of independence in each of those, which I think is healthy, I expect ... to take the outputs of those [reports] and integrate them from my perspective as chairman, in terms of my recommendation for future strategy with respect to Afghanistan," Mullen told reporters Tuesday.

Not everyone agrees that the strategy review under way will say anything about Obama's relationship with the Pentagon. Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, dismisses that notion, saying Obama will receive advice from a number of military advisers, including Mullen.

"That this could become a litmus test for the role of the chairman simply isn't realistic," he says.

Yet many officers believe otherwise. Senior Pentagon officers have long hoped their views would be given more credibility. Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, for example, has pushed publicly to have marines redeployed from Anbar Province in Iraq so that more marines can be deployed to Afghanistan where he believes they could be of more use.

"The president may not always accept the chiefs' recommendations," says one senior officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But it's best for the nation if security issues are decided upon after a healthy dialogue between the [Defense secretary], the president and the chiefs."

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