Rosa Brooks, a law professor in ~ Georgetown University, offered as one Obama appointee at the Defense department from 2009 come 2011.

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After a spate of news stories this summer citing tensions in between President Barack Obama and his top military leaders over the possibility of U.S. Intervention in Syria, White residence chief of employee Denis McDonough accelerated to guarantee the Washington write-up that whatever was, in fact, copacetic: The president “appreciates” candid army advice “above every else,” McDonough insisted, and has “close, and also in part instances warm, relationships through his armed forces chiefs,” together the short article put it. Throughout my very own time in ~ the Pentagon, whereby I functioned as one Obama appointee from the feather of 2009 till mid-2011, couple of seemed to hold this view. Ns recall asking one general, recently ago from Afghanistan, if he’d shared his experiences and insights with the president. Rojo his eyes, he told me grimly that the White House wanted the armed forces to be seen however not heard.

Curious about whether points had changed since then, ns asked a dozen serving and recently retired an elderly military officers with high-level White residence access, countless of who were no comfortable speaking on the record, if they knew of any military leaders through whom the president had actually a close and also warm an individual relationship. In every case, the initial solution was a lengthy silence. “That’s a great question,” claimed one retired senior officer, after ~ a lengthy pause. “Good question. Ns don’t know,” stated a second. “I don’t think he’s close come anyone,” commented a third. He just doesn’t seem come have any interest in “getting come know” the military, a retired basic concluded.

that course, yes no regulation that calls for the chairman to invite his height generals because that pajama parties or rounds of golf, and being “close” to army leaders is no insurance of sound decision-making. But all of this raises an significantly relevant question: How has the president—the male who promised to “ end up the job” in Afghanistan, nearby the door top top the unpopular Iraq War and “ end the mind-set that acquired us into the battle in the first place”—managed a army he regularly seems come regard through mistrust and also unease?


“Americans are deeply ambivalent around war,” Obama called a nationwide Defense college audience in May. He could have to be speaking around himself. Despite his project promises, Obama has actually been embroiled in a series of army adventures, some of his very own making. Return the last U.S. Troops ultimately withdrew indigenous Iraq in December 2011, there room today nearly twice as numerous American troops in Afghanistan as once Obama was very first elected. Obama likewise presided end a seven-month air project in Libya and also has sped up a surprise drone war that has so much killed an estimated 4,000 world in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. With all this, the chairman has continued to refer his dismay over the nation’s militarized international policy: “We cannot use pressure everywhere,” he insisted in May. “Perpetual war … will prove self-defeating, and also alter our country in troubling ways.”

After more than a te of combat, plenty of military leader share Obama’s concern around the expenses of perpetual war. But most of those interviewed because that this article—an selection of current and former Pentagon brass who have collectively had fee of plenty of of the wars on Obama’s watch—also to express the fear that the president’s ambivalence about military force has morphed into ambivalence around the army itself. The generals said me they think this double ambivalence has contributed to a collection of strategically incoherent White residence decisions—and, despite McDonough’s reassurances, many of my sources claimed tensions in between the White House and the army are to run worryingly high.

The latest reason of heartburn within the Pentagon is without doubt Syria. ~ above Aug. 21, according to the unified States and also its allies, the forces of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad introduced a chemical strike on a rebel-held area, crossing the “ red line” Obama had drawn. Obama comment by heralding his intention to “send a message” to Assad via targeted armed forces strikes.

No soldier in his ideal mind would guarantee ‘no boots on the ground,’” a retired an elderly commander called me. “You deserve to never make such guarantees.”

The timing was awkward. Only days prior to the chemical weapons attack, Gen. Boy name Dempsey, the chairman that the joint Chiefs of Staff, had gone on record pooh-poohing the idea the U.S. Military action in Syria, emphasizing the threat of escalation, the prominence of gift “realistic around the expense we incur in blood and also treasure” and also “the boundaries of army force.” Dempsey grew much more circumspect in succeeding congressional testimony, however “his body language,” claims retired army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, Dempsey still said he to be thinking, “I can’t believe how dumb this is.”

previous Defense Secretary Robert gateways was explicitly an important in a September speech: “I believe that to punch a bunch of ingredient up end a pair days, to underscore or validate a suggest or a principle, is not a strategy.”

according to most of those i interviewed, Gates’s scathing indigenous reflect one unhappiness v the command in chief that is widely mutual in the military. “The armed forces does no take you re welcome to world asking castle to do things without thinking them through,” Eaton observes. “Military guys obtain kind of bemused once civilians call them it’s OK to blow world to smithereens using bombs, as lengthy as friend don’t kill them with chemical weapons.” “No soldier in his ideal mind would guarantee ‘no boots top top the ground,’” one more retired an elderly commander called me in frustration, ~ the president had actually promised just that. “You have the right to never make such guarantees. And we must be mindful how we attract moral lines and also distinctions in this terribly complex civil war. In 12 year of war, the U.S. Has actually won every little thing tactically and nothing strategically. Let’s no bomb somebody just to bomb somebody.”

The Syria illustration reinforced the sense of a White House-Pentagon relationship in crisis, and media outlets eagerly i stopped the controversy. “America’s peak Generals room Mad together Hell, and also They’re not Taking it Anymore,” ran a headline in foreign Policy. The Washington post published a caustic op-ed by retired military Maj. Gen. (and Fox News commentator) Robert Scales, who declared that military personnel were “embarrassed come be associated with the amateurism of the Obama administration’s do the efforts to handmade a plan that provides strategic sense.”

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, the White home coordinator because that defense policy, assured me in one emailed statement the the chairman “relies heavily” on his senior military leaders to administer “candid, straight advice v respect to when and how military pressure can be offered to accomplish our nationwide security objectives.” In my interviews, however, many senior military leader complained of emotion baffled and also shut out by a White house National security Staff that, in your view, combine an insistence on micromanaging minor problems with a near-total inability to articulate meaningful strategic goals. “The NSS wants to operation the show, day come day and minute come minute,” laments a former military official, “so they have actually no time—they’re almost incapable of strategic thinking.”

Alluding to Carl von Clausewitz’s well known maxim, one more recently retired an elderly general voiced comparable frustration. “If war is ‘the extension of policy,’ I’d choose to recognize what that plan is—so I deserve to avoid screwing it up, or wasting lives for no purpose.” But, that says, “I don’t know the process by i m sorry the White house is making strategic or foreign-policy decisions. … there’s an illustration of consultation, yet you know you won’t be listened to.”

to be there a single moment when Obama’s relationship with the military began to sour? many observers point to the bruising 2009 debates around troop number in Afghanistan.

automatically after his 2009 Inauguration, Obama collection out to make great on his promise come “finish the job” in Afghanistan. He commissioned a sweeping evaluation of U.S. Policy and announced that he had actually authorized the interim deployment of an additional 17,000 U.S. Troops in response to theatre commander Gen. David McKiernan’s request.

through the finish of February 2009, the president had adopted the brand-new strategic objectives recommended by his interagency review team: From currently on, the United claims would emphasize the fight against al Qaeda—and develop up the Afghan military’s protection forces. But by mid-May, McKiernan, the an initial of several Afghanistan theater commanders under Obama to discover just exactly how elusive “finishing the job” would certainly be, had actually been fired. “War is a difficult auditor,” retired marine Corps Gen. James Mattis told me. No every commander overcome muster.

McKiernan was prospered by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was subsequently assigned come undertake his very own 60-day assessment. But when word spread that McChrystal intended to suggest a substantial brand-new increase in forces, i m sorry Pentagon gossip originally put as high as 80,000 additional troops, tide of dismay spread through the White House. In late September 2009, a copy the McChrystal’s assessment to be leaked to the Washington Post. The bottom line to be clear: If the United says did no pour far-ranging additional resources right into Afghanistan, and also fast, the likely result would be “mission failure.”

i don’t think Obama really realized us were losing the war in Afghanistan until late in 2009,” a retired army general with substantial Afghanistan suffer told me. Furious in ~ the leak—which castle blamed top top the Pentagon—and wake up to accept McChrystal’s grim conclusions, senior White home aides involved in strategy counter-leaks. In your version, McChrystal and the Pentagon were trying to crate in the chairman by pushing to deploy tens of thousands much more troops and also refusing to think about other approaches.

After month of increasingly tense meetings, Obama came to a decision: one more 30,000 U.S. Troops would certainly be sent out to Afghanistan, however after 18 month those troops would begin to withdraw. And also the army wouldn’t be left to fix every problem on the own, the president promised; a “more reliable civilian strategy” would promote improved Afghan governance and also economic development. (The president’s “civilian surge” never truly materialized. In his book tiny America: The battle Within the battle for Afghanistan, Rajiv Chandrasekaran price quotes Brig. Gen. Kenneth Dahl’s sarcastic 2011 rejoinder to karl Eikenberry, then the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, who stated that the civilian surge had actually reached “the high-water mark.” “That’s great,” Dahl responded. “I deserve to feel that lapping at my ankles.”)

following the president’s decision, I observed both civilian and also military officials job-related loyally to put the best possible face on a deteriorate that, in truth, left no one totally happy. “The White home was convinced that the military had actually a vested interest in escalating the conflict,” claims a former White house official. “They feeling manipulated.” and less 보다 a year later, McChrystal was required to resign after a Rolling stone profile quoted his top armed forces aides mocking several an elderly civilian officials, including Eikenberry and Vice chairman Joe Biden.

The White residence was persuaded that the military had actually a vested interest in escalating the conflict,” states a former White residence official. “They feeling manipulated.”

for the White House, the lasting lesson was to take armed forces advice with more than a couple of grains the salt. Former White house officials ns spoke with typically agreed v the generals’ characterization that the concerns and mutual mistrust that marked the relationship. Obama “is now less deferential to the military,” adds a Senate staffer familiar with this debates. “There is part default mistrust.”

The Pentagon’s take on the Afghanistan conflict was fairly different.

“The basic stance is, ‘We can do this, however we desire you to acknowledge the mess, cost and complexity,” states a former an elderly Pentagon official. To countless in the military, McChrystal’s 2009 troop recommendations dropped victim come a White house unwilling to acknowledge any of those things. “There’s a feeling that the White home wants contradictory, difficult things … yet won’t resource them,” a congressional staffer with previous army experience said me.

Indeed, many of the army leaders ns interviewed claimed they believed that military recommendations regularly go unheeded by senior White house staff, who now assume that a risk-averse Pentagon exaggerates every difficulty and inflates every inquiry for troops or money.

This assumption turns discussions right into antagonistic negotiating sessions. Together one retired general puts it, “If you said, ‘We require 40,000 troops,’ they’d instantly say, ‘20,000.’ Not since they assumed that to be the best number, however they simply took it because that granted that any number comes from the military was inflated.”

“Sometimes you want to tell them, ‘This no a political bargaining process,’” another retired senior military official says ruefully. “Where the army comes in high, they counter low, and we work out on an alternative that splits the difference. Needless come say, the right answer is not always in the middle.”

A former White house official with Pentagon experience states White home staff regularly remain willfully uninformed about the reasonable behind military recommendations: they “don’t want to take the time to go through the slide deck or get the complete briefing. Basically, lock don’t want to know.”

end time, of course, a White House tendency to separation the difference is bound to produce perverse incentives for armed forces planners, making shared mistrust self-reinforcing. “If you think the mission truly needs 50,000 troops and also $50 billion, however you recognize that the White home is going to automatically cut every number in half, you’ll come in questioning for 100,000 troops and also $100 billion,” states the aforementioned former White residence official. “The military eventually starts playing the really game the White residence has constantly suspected lock of playing.”

The stakes space high, says former Deputy Undersecretary the Defense catalen Hicks. Whether the ostensible topic is Afghanistan or Syria, “the background is yes, really tensions over budgets and also money. An elderly military officials problem that they’re gift asked to carry out all this things, yet who will money it? who’s looking the end for the military’s institutional interests?” Meanwhile, she adds, “the White house suspects the the army is exaggerating the troubles that will certainly be led to by budget cuts, which simply makes the military even much more frustrated.”

Retired military Lt. Gen. James Dubik, a veteran the Donald Rumsfeld’s rocky regime at the Defense Department, chalks up such misunderstandings come the cultural gap that regularly separates military and also political leaders. There room several simple models of civil-military relations, that notes. The an initial is the timeless one of different spheres the authority: “Civilians carry out policy; the armed forces executes”—but quiet decides the means of execution.

In a second model, “Civilians space the principals, the army are specialized employees. The military have the right to advise, yet they must do what the boss says in the means the ceo wants, no much more and no less.” But, Dubik says, “most human being in the armed forces still donate the classic separate-spheres model, when most people in the White home tend to think in terms of the employer-employee model. That’s a recipe for unhappiness.”

That society gap in between the Pentagon and the White House commonly feels unbridgeable. The military is hierarchical and structured; civilian organizations, even within the White House, space organized an ext loosely. To the military, “planning” is a conscientious defined process designed to develop implementable blueprints because that action, under to the the smallest logistical details; come civilians, planning often just method talking about what might happen in the future.

In mine own quick time in ~ the Pentagon, over there were numerous moments as soon as White House and military officials to be so much apart that they can have been speaking different languages, forcing Defense department civilians favor me into the frequently awkward role of translators.

There was the White house staffer who called me up and also asked me to have CENTCOM move a U.S. Drone to Kyrgyzstan, because that instance, in an effort to track an great outbreak of ethnic violence. As soon as I told the why i couldn’t—the chain that command just doesn’t occupational that way, and in any type of case no formal planning or threat assessments had taken place—he easily grew exasperated.

“You guys”—the Pentagon—“are always stonewalling us on everything. I’m calling friend from the White House. The president desires to prevent genocide in Kyrgyzstan. Every little thing happened to civilian manage of the military?”

“You,” I had to tell him, “are the dorn civilian.”

together if come emphasize the culture clash, ~ episodes like this one, the solution from few of my Obama management colleagues in the White house was bitter: had actually I “gone over to the other side?” one asked.


The military and also the White Houseare not an alleged to it is in on different “sides,” yet there’s a long history of shared recriminations; it’s almost an American tradition. Recall president Harry Truman’s theatrical shoot of Gen. Douglas MacArthur amid the dispute over even if it is to escalate the oriental War; Dwight Eisenhower’s blame to of the “military-industrial complex,” john F. Kennedy’s struggles with military leaders throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis; and also Bill Clinton’s failed initiative to finish the half on gay civilization serving openly in the military. And that’s simply in the post-World war II era.

Dubik argues that doubters of Obama’s connection with the army have quick memories. “This administration seems much more inclusive and willing to listen 보다 the critical few,” he states dryly. And, he adds, if anyone imagines that military leaders are more comfortable through Republican administrations, “that’s baloney.” Charles J. Dunlap, an wait Force significant general that retired in 2010, agrees: “The longer you’re in the military, the more you realize the there’s no all that lot difference in between administrations.”

The just thing worse 보다 an overtly dissenting military is a secretly dissenting military. “Beware the silence of the generals,” one quips.

Disputes in between military leaders and also the White House have the right to be healthy for a democratic society. After ~ all, an elderly commanders have a legal and also ethical obligation to administer the president and Congress with honest military advice, and also although Dempsey’s openly express concerns around Syria may not have sat well through White residence officials, says retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, “the chairman does have to say, ‘Here room the risks in that course of action.’”

In any type of case, warns another retired general, the just thing worse 보다 an overtly dissenting armed forces is a privately dissenting military. “Beware the quiet of the generals,” he quips. “Public quiet doesn’t mean private inaction.” the is far better, the argues, to have top brass it is in “out in the open and also accountable for what lock thinking” than for lock to be “speaking v proxies and also doing back-channel manipulations.”

Meanwhile, the president is “right to ask his generals challenging questions,” says Dunlap. Every administration prefers to existing a joined front with the military, but, as another retired an elderly military leader said me, the president demands to it is in comfortable if the proves impossible: “There’s nothing wrong through the president saying, ‘The military wanted something, but as president, I determined different, and here’s why.’ The president do not do it be afraid of that.”

That’s easier said than done. For this White House, the army is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla—more so 보다 ever. ~ the Sept. 11, attacks, resources and authorities flowed luxury to the Pentagon, which saw its budget virtually doublein the following decade. President George W. Bush’s management “always wanted armed forces guys between themselves and whatever the difficulty was,” recalls a retired general who offered in an elderly positions during that period. And Bush was an ext than willing to invest the money necessary to make the happen.

Meanwhile, budgets because that civilian agencies and programs remained greatly stagnant. “Ten come 15 years ago, the armed forces was much smaller and less holistic,” notes an additional retired officer. Today’s military is doing more with more: the sponsors radio and also television mirrors in Afghanistan, operates health clinics in Africa, offers technical assistance to courts and parliaments, engages in cyberdefense, carries the end drone strikes in far-flung places, and collects data from our telephone calls and also emails.

“It’s simply the easiest way out of any type of problem,” claims Eaton. “Give money come the military and let them resolve it.”

The relentlessly widening U.S. Military, Barno says, is becoming “like a super-Walmart with everything under one roof.” favor Walmart, the military have the right to marshal substantial resources and also exploit economies of range in ways impossible for mom-and-pop operations. And like Walmart, the tempting one-stop-shopping convenience the military offers has actually a destructive effect on smaller, much more traditional enterprises—in this case, the surcharge diplomats that Foggy Bottom. Or the boutique nationwide security shop at the White House, whereby power lives but resources don’t.

and also yet no one—least of every Obama—seems come know how to cope v the military’s sewage Walmartization. But committed the chairman is, in theory, come rebalancing civilian and military roles, Obama has discovered himself repeatedly transforming to the Pentagon in time of crisis, even if it is in Libya, Syria or Yemen.

That, in the end, may be the real story the Obama and also his uneasy relationship with a army he concerned office established to rein in.

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“When the shit hits the fan,” claims a previous White house official, he is “racing for that super-Walmart every single bloody time.”

Rosa Brooks , a regulation professor at Georgetown University, served as one Obama appointee at the Defense room from 2009 to 2011.