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How McCain, Obama would do as commander in chief

McCain has the experience, but Obama may be more open to Pentagon advice.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer / October 28, 2008

Familiar: John McCain, a war veteran, met Sgt. Timothy Brown (left) and Sgt. Thomas Prasenski at Capitol Hill in Washington in March.

Dennis Cook/AP

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Washington

What kind of commander in chief would Sen. John McCain or Sen. Barack Obama be?

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National security issues loom large for the next president: He will have to manage the drawdown of thousands of American troops in Iraq, oversee the deployment of thousands more in an increasingly violent Afghanistan, and assess whether to grow the military to cope with the war on terrorism.

On these issues, the advantage might seem to be all on the side of Senator McCain, a war veteran.

But former defense officials, as well as active-duty and retired officers, say that the military – whose rank and file are perceived to vote Republican – sees positives and negatives in both candidates.

McCain’s big advantages are his experience and his familiarity with the military, but Senator Obama’s may be a greater willingness to listen to Pentagon advice.

That could be important because the past eight years under the Bush administration, especially the decision to invade Iraq, has left some Pentagon officers feeling ignored.

“Senior military officers have carried out orders they didn’t agree with all their professional lives,” says Dennis Blair, who retired as a four-star admiral in 2002 and who served in senior defense jobs during two administration transitions. “All they want is for their best military advice to be considered, and then they will salute and execute their orders. It’s pretty easy for an incoming administration if they are smart enough, to give them a chance.”

McCain’s strengths in the national security realm could be a weakness if he comes at the Pentagon with too many preconceptions, say former defense officials. The Pentagon may also be an ideal place for him to display his “maverick” approach.

“He is a reformer, and he will try to make sure there is a minimum of bureaucracy and a maximum of efficiency,” says Rep. Duncan Hunter (R) of California.
Obama, perceived as a “listener,” is considered a national security neophyte who will need to make forceful decisions based on the advice he receives to establish his credentials within the Pentagon.

“He seems like a very good listener without a fixed national security agenda, but he doesn’t seem soft,” says Mr. Blair. He adds that Obama will have to find the balance between taking military advice without being dominated by it.
McCain’s high military credibility

Key to the next president’s success as commander in chief will be his approach to the Pentagon. President Clinton famously stumbled with the military when he made an ill-fated attempt to allow homosexuals to serve openly in his first days, which was also when the peacekeeping operation in Somalia turned ugly. In 2000, the military had high hopes for George W. Bush based on his father’s success during the first Gulf War and on the appointment of certain senior leaders. But then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld came to be perceived as heavy-handed and dismissive of military advice if it didn’t comport with his own thinking.

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