Obama redefines White House relationship with top field commander

President Obama and his predecessor differ significantly in their approach to America’s wars. They differ at least as much in their relationship with their top battlefield commander.

During the Bush administration, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the then-ground commander in Iraq, assumed the role of a trusted advisor who frequently visited the White House or talked to the president by phone.

But Obama’s commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, occupies a defined place in the chain of command. The two have met face-to-face twice -- and one of those was after the general infuriated the White House by discussing U.S. strategy in an overseas speech.

The reasons for the marked contrasts run deeper than personal preferences. Under Obama, top Pentagon officials have worked to keep McChrystal out of the spotlight, in part to avoid creating “another celebrity general” as the White House debates its Afghan strategy.


Senior military officials have pushed for a more traditional relationship between Obama and his field commander than existed between President Bush and his field commanders, in particular Petraeus.

Whether that approach will succeed in persuading the White House to endorse McChrystal’s plan for Afghanistan is not yet clear.

McChrystal has made recommendations on strategy and troop levels for Afghanistan that are the subject of intense debate within the administration. Obama is expected to decide over the next two weeks whether to approve his general’s strategy and request for 40,000 additional troops.

Some in the Pentagon think that with strong backing from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, much of McChrystal’s request will be approved. Others worry that the lack of a personal connection between McChrystal and Obama may have made it more difficult for the commander to explain his proposal and answer concerns.


“There is no division” between Obama and McChrystal, said a Defense official, one of several speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing the relationship. “It is just an absence of a relationship.”

Officials close to Mullen and Gates say the two men have been forceful in presenting McChrystal’s views to Obama and are comfortable with how the president prefers to be briefed on the war.

“There is a general comfort level with the manner with which the president has chosen to get his military advice,” said a military officer in Washington.

The preference appears to appeal to the Pentagon as well. Top Pentagon officials, including Mullen, wanted to avoid a repeat of 2007, when the job of defending plans to increase the number of troops in Iraq fell to Petraeus.

Some officials felt that Petraeus was unfairly pushed into the political fray and became the subject of political attacks, such as when the liberal group branded him “General Betray Us” in a newspaper ad.

Others thought Petraeus held too much of the spotlight and that other military voices failed to get a proper hearing.

“No one wants another Petraeus,” said the Defense official. “No one wants another celebrity general.”

One military officer based in Kabul, Afghanistan, said that the McChrystal command’s regular contact with Gates and Mullen made up for less communication directly with the president. “Too many people were trying to make this out to be a lack of communication. It is really just the opposite,” said the officer. “There has been great communications with the chain of command to include the secretary of Defense.”


The Bush-Petraeus relationship left perceptions that the chain of command had been left out.

“The problem is not that Petraeus and Bush had a one-on-one relationship,” said an Obama administration official. “The problem was that other people were cut out of the conversation.”

Many disagree that the relationship between Petraeus and Bush subverted the chain of command. Current and former officials noted that both Mullen and Gates participated in Bush’s weekly conference calls with Petraeus.

Eliot A. Cohen, the author of “Supreme Command,” which examines the wartime relationships between civilian and military leaders, said presidents must have regular conversations with their field commanders.

“It has to be a dialogue,” Cohen said. “One way you judge what is going on is the body language, the look in the eye of your commander. That is basic leadership.”

Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior official in the Bush administration, argues that the Obama White House has been too quick to dismiss some things the previous administration did. “Whatever Bush did, they are going to do the opposite without much reflection,” he said. “But it is a mistake to keep your theater commander at arm’s length.”

Some Pentagon officials think the Obama White House is a bit wary of the military. Administration officials who are veterans of the Clinton White House may recall jarring collisions with the uniformed services. The Clinton White House and military officials clashed openly on the issue of gays serving in the military, for instance, leading to the disputed “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in effect now.

Thomas X. Hammes, a retired officer and military theorist, says each president must nurture his own relationships.


“It is about personalities,” he said. “What is the best formula for a marriage? It is two personalities that have to do something difficult together.”