- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Members of Washington’s military and defense establishment are expressing trepidation about Sen. Barack Obama, as the Illinois senator comes closer to winning the Democratic presidential nomination and leads in national polls to become commander in chief.

But his backers, including a former Air Force chief of staff, say the rookie senator believes in a strong military, and with it, a larger Army and Marine Corps.

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  • “Any military person who concludes he’s a left-wing, hair-on-fire, Kumbaya child of the ‘60s has sadly misunderestimated him, to use George Bush’s term,” said retired Gen. Merrill McPeak.

    Still, the mostly conservative retired officers, industry executives and current defense officials interviewed by The Washington Times cite Mr. Obama’s lack of experience in national security. They also point to his determination to pull American combat units from Iraq at a time when a troop surge has reduced violence, damaged al Qaeda and allowed the Iraqi government to progress toward Sunni-Shia-Kurd reconciliation.

    “We’re very concerned about his apparent lack of understanding on the threat of radical Islam to the United States,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, who is pro-Iraq war and a Fox News analyst. “A lot of retired senior officers feel the same way.”

    Mr. Obama also has stirred concern in national security circles by pledging to talk to the leaders of rogue nations, such as Iran and North Korea, without preconditions.

    His urging of the Bush administration to conduct air strikes against terrorist targets in Pakistan without its approval is privately derided inside the Pentagon as the way to ruin relations with a good ally. Pakistan will not allow U.S. combat troops to operate on its soil.

    Questions about Mr. Obama’s commander-in-chief qualifications have reached the campaign trail. The Obama camp Wednesday sent out one of its advisers, former State Department official Susan Rice, to respond to charges from Sen. John McCain, the likely Republican nominee.

    Meanwhile, Mark Penn, chief strategist for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, held a conference call with reporters to say the campaign will make the president’s role as commander in chief a top issue leading up to March 4 primaries in Texas and Ohio.

    Lawrence Korb, a military analyst at the Center for American Progress and one of a dozen or so national security advisers to the Obama campaign, rebutted the lack-of-experience complaint, saying neither President Bush nor John F. Kennedy could claim an extensive national security background before entering the White House.

    Unlike Mr. Obama, though, both men served in the military.

    “I think Obama would be very good.” Mr. Korb said. “I think the job of the commander in chief is to listen to all of the inputs he gets and then have a sense of world history and the way the world works, and to be able to apply the advice he gets from his military people. Remember, Obama was one of the first ones to support a larger military, a larger Army and Marine Corps, well before the administration did.”

    Mr. Obama has visited Iraq and other nations as a Senate Foreign Relations Committee member.

    No other Obama proposal brings more military criticism than his plan to bring home one to two combat brigades per month from Iraq — meaning all such units would be out by the end of 2009, his first year in office.

    A senior Pentagon official said an Obama swearing-in “will give the Arab street the final victory, the best optics, and the ultimate in bragging rights. They win. We lose.”

    Retired Army Gen. John Keane, an architect of the Iraq troop surge, worries that talk of a U.S. pullout makes reconciliation more difficult. Gen. Keane has not endorsed any presidential candidate.

    “Anyone who is advocating a precipitous pullout of U.S. forces, believing this will be a catalyst for political progress, does not understand the realities of Iraq and the minds of the key political leaders,” Gen. Keane told The Washington Times. “The U.S. military presence is the glue that is holding things together in Iraq and is the fundamental reason for the recent political progress. If you remove this presence, the political leaders in Iraq will believe they are on their own and will fall prey to their own fears and paranoia. … They will bunker down and the political progress will come to a dead stop.”

    Mr. Korb said Mr. Obama has a “technically sound” proposal for withdrawing troops. He said that the candidate realized before the war, unlike many politicians in Washington, that things would go wrong in Iraq.

    “If you go back and you look at the speech he gave on Iraq before the war, I think that it was very well reasoned and well argued,” the adviser said.

    As a state senator in 2002, Mr. Obama said, “I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.”

    Gen. McPeak, who is an Obama campaign co-chairman, said the senator’s intelligence will dazzle the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

    “I think Obama is going to be an outstanding commander in chief, not just an ordinary commander in chief,” he told The Washington Times. “He has the potential to be one of the all-time greats. I think the senior military will learn that about him starting from the first minute he occupies the Oval Office. … There’s no question that he is kind of scary smart. I think just plain intelligence is a very good quality to have in a commander in chief.”

    Gen. McPeak said it is a “fair comment” that Mr. Obama is viewed skeptically by senior officers. The general, who led the Air Force during the historic Desert Storm bombing of Iraq in 1991, believes the second war was unnecessary. He switched from Republican to Democrat in protest.

    “I think that’s undoubtedly true that the surge has reduced the violence there,” he said. “But at the strategic level they did not set the initial conditions properly and therefore we can never be a success.”

    Defense industry executives worry that Mr. Obama will end six years of defense budget increases and, as he has repeatedly said on the campaign trail and in debates, tap into war and military funds to support his plan for universal health care.

    “We’ve got some trepidation. There is no track record,” said an industry executive of the first-term senator. “He’s an unknown quantity and that scares us a little bit.”

    The National Journal ranked Mr. Obama as the Senate’s most liberal member in 2007, based partly on his string of votes in favor of amendments that mandated a combat troop pullout from Iraq.

    Mr. Obama does, however, acknowledge that America is in a war against extremists.

    “The terrorists are at war with us,” he said in “The War We Need to Win,” a major policy speech. “They seek to create a repressive caliphate. To defeat this enemy, we must understand who we are fighting against, and what we are fighting for.”

    One of his five pillars for winning is, “getting out of Iraq and on to the right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

    The Obama campaign has assembled a team of national security advisers, most of whom worked in the Clinton administration, including former national security adviser Anthony Lake. To date, Mr. Obama has attracted few retired admirals and generals as supporters.

    Mrs. Clinton has the backing of two dozen flag officers. “She knows and respects our armed forces,” said Lee Feinstein, her campaign’s national security director. “She is the person in this race who is most qualified to be commander in chief.”

    But Loren Thompson, who runs the Lexington Institute and stays in touch with defense industry executives, said Mr. Obama is difficult to categorize.

    “His views are all over the map depending on whether its nuclear proliferation, energy independence or the global war on terror,” he said. “How many liberals say they are going to bomb al Qaeda in Pakistan no matter whether the Pakistanis like it or not? He’s much harder to pin down.”

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