Afghanistan presents test for Obama

President Barack Obama enjoys a cordial relationship with the armed forces despite his lack of military experience, but his decision on an Afghanistan policy will test that.

Obama comes into Veterans Day with the respect of the rank and file, thanks to his choices for Cabinet posts and military aides along with the gestures he’s made as commander in chief.

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But what Obama decides to do in Afghanistan and, just as importantly, how he explains that decision will do more to define his relationship with the men and women in uniform than anything he has done so far.

The president has received high marks for his visits to injured troops at Walter Reed hospital; his trip to Dover, Del., to meet the bodies of Americans killed in Afghanistan; and for traveling to Fort Hood, Texas, after the shootings there.

But Afghanistan remains a major factor.

Raymond DuBois, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former undersecretary of the Army in the Bush administration, said Obama’s Afghanistan decision “is the most important decision this president can make.”

“If it turns out to be the wrong decision, it will be his burden to bear,” DuBois said.

It will be equally important how he frames his decision, said Paul Rieckhoff, the executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who served as a first lieutenant in Iraq.

Obama needs to explain his Afghanistan policy in such fashion that people in the military understand that it is not just their “burden to bear,” but that they are part of a comprehensive strategy in which other agencies such as the State Department play a critical role, Rieckhoff said.

“He has got to explain that success [in that region] is not solely dependent in the military,” he added.

“Let’s understand all sides here and most importantly how we are going to rally our country around this decision,” Rieckhoff said. “He has to prepare the country. He has to manage expectations.”

And Rieckhoff noted: “Obviously, he has some learning to do. There is always a steeper learning curve for someone who has not served in the military.”

Obama also will have to show “willingness to go out to the American public and make the case for the war,” said Pete Hegseth, the chairman of Vets for Freedom, a nonpartisan organization representing Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

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The organization is pressing Obama to heed the troop requests made by the senior commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

McChrystal has recommended a menu of options, including a request for about 40,000 additional troops.

Obama also enjoys the military’s respect in large part because of his decision to keep Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the Pentagon, and the good relationship he enjoys with Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen.

Mullen and Gates enjoy immense popularity within the ranks, and some of that has trickled down to Obama.

Ross Baker, a professor at Rutgers University and an expert on the White House, said Obama and the highly educated career soldiers share the same sense of thoughtfulness.

“I think he’s more likely to have a meeting of the minds with people like that,” Baker said.

The military has a great deal of confidence and respect for the president in large part because he has put a lot of effort into promoting transparency and fostering debate, said a senior Defense Department official who works closely with the military on Afghanistan issues.

Another factor in Obama’s popularity is that he has not gone against the military leadership so far, said Jon Soltz, the co-founder of VoteVets.org, who served in Iraq as an Army captain.

“The president has been very deferential to the military leadership, absolutely,” Soltz said.

Obama agreed to the first troop increase in Afghanistan, requested by the former commander there, Gen. David McKiernan; he did not release pictures from the Abu Ghraib prison at the request of the military leadership; and he has not pressed strongly to repeal the policy that prevents openly gay people from serving in the military, despite indicating that it is one of his goals, Soltz said.

 Former President Bill Clinton got off to a rocky start with the military when he stated he was going to allow gays in the military before instituting “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

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Obama already has taken some significant steps that have encouraged military members and veterans, said Rieckhoff.

He has established the Wounded Warrior office at the White House that is especially designated to hear the issues brought up by wounded veterans of wars. Obama has strongly supported and signed into law the new GI Bill that provides educational benefits for those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also has backed advanced appropriations for the veterans’ healthcare budget to achieve some predictability and continuity.

Obama also promised to end homelessness among veterans, and it will be important to see how he follows through with that vow, said Rieckhoff.

 On his first defense budget, Obama made some bold symbolic moves, such as terminating the new presidential helicopter program because of ballooning costs and delays and capping the production of the F-22 fighter jet at 187 planes.

He has championed acquisition reform at the Pentagon and accountability of money spent on defense programs.

But officials will be watching an upcoming review of military strategy, known as the Quadrennial Defense Review, due out early next year, along with the president’s budget request for fiscal 2011. The individual military services may look at budget choices as an indication of the administration’s priorities, according to defense insiders.