Friction between Obama, Pentagon has ripple effect
WASHINGTON — On a trip to Afghanistan during President Obama’s first term, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was stunned to find a telephone line at the Special Ops headquarters that linked directly back to a top White House national security official.
“I had them tear it out while I was standing there,” Gates said this month as he recounted his discovery. “I told the commanders, ‘If you get a call from the White House, you tell them to go to hell and call me.’”
To Gates, the phone in Kabul symbolized Obama’s efforts to micromanage the Pentagon and centralize decision-making in the White House. That criticism later would be echoed publicly and pointedly by Gates’ successor, Leon Panetta.
The president’s third Pentagon chief, Chuck Hagel, was picked partly because he was thought to be more deferential to Obama’s close circle of White House advisers. But over time, Hagel grew frustrated with what he felt was the West Wing’s insularity.
The friction between the White House and the Pentagon has been pronounced during Obama’s six years in office. That dynamic appears to be affecting the president’s ability to find a replacement for Hagel, who resigned last week under pressure from Obama.
Within hours, former Pentagon official Michele Flournoy called the president to take herself out of consideration, even though she was widely seen as his top choice.
Flournoy officially cited family concerns, but people close to her say she had reservations about being restrained like Hagel and would perhaps wait to see if she could get the job if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency in 2016.
To some in the Pentagon, the president’s approach to the military seems particularly cool and detached when compared with that of his predecessor, Republican George W. Bush, who was more eager to embrace the military and accept its judgments.
Stephen Biddle, an occasional adviser to combat commanders, said the White House has fallen victim to “group think” and is distrustful of advice or perspectives that challenge its own.
“That’s a bad policy development design,” said Biddle, apolitical science professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
Several White House, defense and other administration officials discussed the relationship between the president and the Pentagon on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to do so publicly.