By ROSA BROOKS
After a spate of news stories this summer citing tensions between President Barack Obama and his top military commanders over the possibility of U.S. intervention in Syria, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough hastened to assure the Washington Post that everything was, in fact, copacetic: The president “appreciates” candid military advice “above all else,” McDonough insisted, and has “close, and in some instances warm, relationships with his military chiefs,” as thePost put it. During my own time at the Pentagon, where I worked as an Obama appointee from the spring of 2009 until mid-2011, few seemed to hold this view. I recall asking one general, recently back from Afghanistan, if he’d shared his experiences and insights with the president. Rolling his eyes, he told me grimly that the White House preferred the military to be seen but not heard.
Curious about whether things had changed since then, I asked a dozen serving and recently retired senior military officers with high-level White House access, many of whom were not comfortable speaking on the record, if they knew of any military leaders with whom the president had a close and warm personal relationship. In every case, the initial response was a long silence. “That’s a great question,” said one retired senior officer, after a lengthy pause. “Good question. I don’t know,” said a second. “I don’t think he’s close to anyone,” commented a third. He just doesn’t seem to have any interest in “getting to know” the military, a retired general concluded.
Of course, there’s no law that requires the president to invite his top generals for pajama parties or rounds of golf, and being “close” to military leaders is no guarantee of sound decision-making. But all of this raises an increasingly relevant question: How has the president—the man who promised to “finish the job” in Afghanistan, close the door on the unpopular Iraq War and “end the mind-set that got us into the war in the first place”—managed a military he often seems to regard with mistrust and unease?