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.
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.
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.