The military leadership is proving to be a solid ally of President Obama in political Washington, adopting his social revolution and willing to serve as backdrops to the White House’s campaign-style drive to win the budget battle with Republicans.
The armed forces have launched an unrelenting lobbying effort on Capitol Hill with a flood of briefing charts to defense staffers. They show the damage that automatic budget cuts called “sequestration” would do to the troops — and to jobs in congressional districts. The charts coincide with the White House push to blame congressional Republicans for the spending cuts, which begin Friday.
The fates of the military chiefs and the president are more closely tied than ever.
“If there is a single constant in the norm of civilian control, it is that the military instinctively submits,” said Ken Allard, a retired Army officer and columnist. “But they also recognize that presidents get exactly the kind of military advice they deserve. And he is ultimately responsible for failure or success.”
Mr. Obama has won them over on the social front, too.
The Joint Chiefs have applauded opening ranks to gays. They now are searching for ways to implement Mr. Obama’s other landmark decision — lifting a ban on women serving in direct combat jobs, the infantry and special operations.
When the White House complained about supposed anti-Muslim training in the ranks, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put into motion investigations that led to the firing of a decorated Army officer as a staff college teacher.
Although the top brass have avoided appearing at Obama budget events, military aviators served as a backdrop Tuesday when the commander in chief landed at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., on his way to a Newport News shipyard where aircraft carrier work is in jeopardy because of sequestration.
“The president has been traveling all over the country, and today going down to Newport News in order to use our military men and women as a prop in yet another campaign rally to support his tax hikes,” said House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.
Mr. Allard said the military chiefs are realists.
“The chiefs would be crazy if they didn’t recognize that Obama has a near monopoly on power, reinforced by a compliant press corps,” he said. “One of the few exceptions is [Washington Post journalist] Bob Woodward, and just look at what the White House tried to do there.”
Mr. Woodward said in interviews Wednesday that a White House official warned him that he would “regret” reporting that the president keeps moving the goal post during budget talks.
The best-selling author called it “madness” that Mr. Obama would not send a carrier to the Persian Gulf, as requested by that region’s U.S. commander. The statement implies that the Joint Chiefs have acquiesced to a bad military decision.
“The chiefs are part of the administration’s spin machine because they are part of the executive branch and they know they are going to be hurt almost immediately by sequester,” Mr. Polmar said.
With new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the White House has an even more loyal follower than his predecessor, Leon E. Panetta.
“You have a secretary of defense now who is totally beholden to the White House,” Mr. Polmar said. “Panetta wasn’t. Panetta was a professional of the first order. He had held other major government jobs. Panetta was not a creature of the White House. Hagel is. The previous chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff [Navy Adm. Mike Mullen] was recognized as the right man for the job. Dempsey is also a creature of the White House.”
‘High degree of influence’
Larry Johnson, a former State Department and CIA official, said the chiefs are in a battle for preservation — their weapons programs and troops — and will willingly join the White House campaign to save them.
“This is self-preservation, brother,” Mr. Johnson said. “This is all about them, protecting themselves.”
He added: “They are the same under any president. [The Defense Department] has never had a vested interest in budget cuts. Truth be told, civilian employees over there ought to be reduced by at least 20 percent. There is so much bloat in the spending by these guys, it is shameful.”
Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, was one of the first lawmakers in February to question whether the Joint Chiefs had crossed the line into politics. He accused the Navy of picking “dramatic” cuts, such as the decision not to deploy a second aircraft carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf, when other operations items could be sacrificed.
On Thursday, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter answered Mr. Hunter in a three-page letter that argued the Navy has no other choice in closing an $8 billion spending gap.
“This decision was not designed to make a point,” Mr. Carter said. “Without a spending bill this year and no flexibility to supplement our operating accounts, the deployments would have meant reducing the training associated with future carrier deployments and, at some point, would have put at risk the Navy’s ability to deploy an aircraft carrier to the Arabian Gulf.”
Said Joe Kasper, Mr. Hunter’s spokesman: “It’s more difficult to get clear and candid advice. It’s interesting. Sometimes what you’re told in the office, face to face, versus the public perception that is created in hearing testimony, and public letters, sometimes differ. The president’s commander in chief. There is a high degree of influence from the White House.”
Pentagon spokesman George Little opened a press briefing Tuesday by rejecting charges that the chiefs are involved in political spin.
“There seems to be a belief in some quarters that, when it comes to negative impact that sequester will have on our national defense and military readiness, the Department of Defense is crying wolf,” Mr. Little said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. What you’ve heard from DoD leaders over the past few weeks is not hype. It’s the blunt truth. It isn’t exaggeration.”
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