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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.

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McCain’s military service and war hero status naturally give him credibility with today’s military. But it will only get him so far, say many officers.

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Some worry that McCain would be more inclined to carry out his own ideas about what the military should do. Experts outside the military with knowledge of the campaigns indicate McCain’s camp, which has been struggling to establish itself against the economic crisis, has largely ignored military issues, sending a signal to some that a McCain administration might come into office with its own agenda.

“He would start out on Day 1 saying I know the issues, I know the personalities, and there is probably some anxiety along those lines to be blunt,” says Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star general who frequently consults with senior officials in Washington.

McCain is also more likely to follow the advice of Gen. David Petraeus, who presided over the “surge” of forces in Iraq and will within days become the head of US Central Command in charge of operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The McCain camp will be less skeptically inclined and be more trusting of Petraeus,” says a staffer for a senior senator on Capitol Hill.
Obama brings an open ear, fresh eye

The perception that Obama is a rookie on national security issues both hurts and helps him with the military, say those inside and outside the defense establishment.

Both candidates have expressed the desire to change the dynamic in Afghanistan, but Obama may be inclined to shake it up more. “The fact that he doesn’t have a wealth of experience allows him to call for a strategy review in Afghanistan that wouldn’t be seen as naive but as using fresh eyes to look at the problem,” says Dan Fata, a senior policy secretary who left the Pentagon last month and is now vice president at the Cohen Group, a Washington-based consulting firm.

The military may expect an Obama administration to be less inclined to use them for international saber rattling, says General McCaffrey.

“I think there is fear on the part of many senior leaders to see McCain in office,” he says. “It’s almost counterintuitive, but there is a bit of me that says they would be happier to see Obama.”

On Gates, common ground

Both men will want to put their own fingerprints on the Pentagon in time. But this will mark the first change of an administration during wartime since Vietnam, and most analysts bet that either candidate will keep Robert Gates on as defense secretary.

How long either would keep him is unclear. But Richard Danzig, a former Navy secretary and Obama’s chief national security advisor, has said Gates is a good Pentagon chief and would be “an even better one” under Obama. Gates is equally popular among Republicans, who may urge McCain to keep him for the first months of his administration.