Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Obama At the Pentagon

Today President Obama went to the Pentagon for a sit-down with what the media like to label “the military brass.” Commentators made much of the fact that the President went to the “home turf” of the military, proclaiming that the president’s journey across the Potomac River (it flows between the White House, located in the District of Columbia and the Pentagon located in northern Virginia) was an indication of the great respect the new commander-in-chief has for the men and women in uniform.


Left adrift by the unexpected length of the meeting, the media talking heads imbued the short automobile trip with a symbolism normally reserved for events that alter history, such as Julius Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon.

Put the visit in perspective.

1. The Joint Chiefs had already as a body gone to the White House in Obama’s first full day as president to formally receive the president’s directive to plan for the drawdown and eventual complete withdrawal of all U.S. military forces in Iraq.

2. This meeting was the first opportunity for the new president to see the “tank” where the most highly classified secrets are discussed. After all, as commander-in-chief, Obama “owns” the real estate and the building sitting on it.

3. The range of topics discussed reportedly was broad. The Chiefs would want to have immediately at hand a bevy of senior joint staff officers who could respond to questions posed by the president and thus not waste presidential time. Taking this circus to the White House would require a multi-mile convoy of vehicles to ferry all “the brass” to the White House. Common sense suggests that moving the president and his entourage is more efficient.

I do not doubt that President Obama respects the men and women who serve in the armed forces. In his remarks after the Pentagon meeting, he expressed his and the country’s gratitude for the sacrifices of those in service and their families. He promised to get the troops the resources they would need to carry out their assigned missions. He also pledged to make sure that the nation’s military forces are supported in their missions by the civilian “forces” that constitute the non-military elements of national power such as the State Department and USAID.

Here I take issue with Obama, or at least with the way he phrased his comments. Perhaps the physical setting in which he made his remarks unconsciously influenced his choice of words. Whatever the cause, Until the Washington politicians get used to putting into motion the non-military sources of national power when confrontation looms, the U.S. will continue to stumble into armed conflict unnecessarily. Yes, it will take a re-ordering of priorities and resources to build the civilian tools of national power. But it is never too early to start talking about it so that, when the resources are redistributed, we already have the psychology right.


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