Defense officials get ahead of Obama

Defense officials get ahead of Obama
© Getty Images

Defense officials keep getting in front of the White House. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Whether it's the subject of arming Ukraine, slowing the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan or putting boots on the ground against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), defense officials seem to be embracing policy changes before the rest of the administration.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter this week expressed support for slowing the drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan — a step President Obama is considering, but has yet to endorse. 

"I think we can adjust our plan over the next year or two," Carter said Tuesday at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

ADVERTISEMENT
On the question of whether to provide arms to Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said at that same hearing, "I think we should absolutely consider providing lethal aid.”

Also Tuesday, the Army’s top commander in Europe, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, told reporters in Berlin that providing arms to Ukraine would raise the costs for Moscow: "When mothers start seeing sons come home dead, when that price goes up, then that domestic support begins to shrink.” 

The State Department was more circumspect. At a hearing Wednesday, senior State Department official Victoria Nuland said, “The president has asked us for our advice. We have provided it to him, but I'm going to keep that advice confidential for purposes of this hearing.” 

The recommendations from defense officials kept coming, as Carter later in the week criticized the inclusion of a three-year expiration date in the White House’s draft proposal for an authorization of military force against ISIS. 

“That is not something that I would have deduced from the Department of Defense’s necessities, the campaign’s necessities, or our obligations to the troops. I think it has to do with the political calendar in our country,” Carter said. 

Dempsey also made waves last fall when she suggested that U.S. troops could accompany Iraqi forces into battle, despite the White House’s insistence that ground troops would not be needed.

On Wednesday, Dempsey suggested U.S. troops could also accompany Syrian rebels into battle, adding, "If we believe that's necessary to achieve our objectives, we will make that recommendation."

It’s not just defense officials who are making their views known. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Monday that arming Ukraine would “bolster their resolve.” Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryKentucky basketball coach praises Obama after golf round: 'He is a really serious golfer' The enemy of my enemy is my friend — an alliance that may save the Middle East Democratic governors fizzle in presidential race MORE also reportedly told lawmakers in private discussions that he supported arming Ukraine. 

The White House has said for months that arming Ukraine and slowing the pace of the Afghan drawdown are under “active consideration” without committing to either.

The dissonance has been noticeable, especially given that the White House has been criticized by two former defense secretaries for micromanaging the Pentagon, having an impenetrable “inner circle” of advisers and keeping a tight lid on messaging and policy deliberations.   

White House officials were reportedly upset by former Defense Secretary Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelOvernight Defense: US, Russia tensions grow over nuclear arms | Highlights from Esper's Asia trip | Trump strikes neutral tone on Hong Kong protests | General orders ethics review of special forces Five takeaways from Pentagon chief's first major trip Esper given horse in Mongolia as US looks for new inroads against China MORE’s forward-leaning comment last August that the ISIS was “beyond anything that we’ve seen” and an “imminent threat to every interest we have.” Earlier in the year, Obama had dismissed ISIS as terrorism’s “jay-vee” team.

Hagel was forced out as Defense secretary late last year, reportedly after repeated clashes with the White House.

The ouster of Hagel makes it all the more remarkable that so many defense officials are speaking openly about their desire to arm Ukraine.

A reporter on Wednesday asked White House press secretary Josh Earnest who in the administration is urging Obama against providing weapons, given the number of top officials endorsing it in public.

Earnest declined to answer directly, saying only that Obama “is very mindful of the fact that there are consequences for making decisions like that; that he is aware that adding additional military equipment to this situation is likely to contribute to greater bloodshed.”

Defense and military officials deny that there’s a calculated effort underway to pressure Obama. Carter and others are just doing their jobs, they say, by giving their best military advice, especially to lawmakers. 

“They can’t withhold their personal opinion if pressed by Congress,” said one military official who asked not to be named to speak freely. 

The military official said the Pentagon and the White House “stay closely coordinated,” and that no defense official discusses their private views without first notifying the president. 

Another defense official noted that Carter and Dempsey have added heavy caveats to their positions, and said the reason they seem out of step with the White House is due to the rapidly "evolving nature" of the national security threats. 

Should Obama decide to slow the Afghan troop drawdown, the military official noted, the remarks from Carter and other officials could provide him cover.

One former defense official said the White House has little choice but to give Carter leeway, after going through three previous defense secretaries. 

Given his years of experience at the Pentagon, and the fact that his nomination garnered an overwhelming 93-5 vote from the Senate, it would be foolish for the White House to undercut Carter from the beginning, the former official said. 

Republican lawmakers have taken note of the remarks from Carter and others and have seized on them to ramp up pressure the president.

Perhaps the biggest choice facing Obama is what to do about Afghanistan, with a visit from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani just a few weeks away.

“I don't know what decisions the president will make in that regard or the timetable on which he'll make them,” Carter said on Tuesday. 

On Ukraine, White House aides insist Obama alone is calling the shots. 

“The president has been the leader of this Ukraine policy,” Nuland said. “These are his decisions to make.”