WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama convened top military leaders on Wednesday for an evening at the White House at a time of deep uncertainty for the Pentagon, where the defense secretary is on his way out and the military faces tough questions about its strategy in the Middle East.
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden hosted the leaders, including the general and admirals in charge of U.S military commands, for a meeting in the Cabinet Room. First lady Michelle Obama was to join them for a late dinner at Blair House, the president's official state guest house just steps away from the White House.
The sit-down comes at an awkward time for Obama, whose strained relationship with the Pentagon has been on full display since Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel resigned last month under pressure from the president. Hagel is staying on until his successor is confirmed and attended Wednesday's dinner.
The White House's search for Hagel's replacement has repeatedly been impeded by his preferred candidates taking themselves out of the running, underscoring concerns about White House micromanaging that leaves Pentagon chiefs little room to maneuver. It's a criticism that has been echoed by Obama's former defense secretaries, who have complained that centralized decision-making within a tight group of White House advisers has sometimes stalled or scuttled quick, aggressive action to deal with global crises.
Ashton Carter, a little-known former Pentagon official, has emerged as the latest leading candidate to replace Hagel. But Obama hasn't made any announcement, with officials saying they're still tying up loose ends before making his nomination official.
Officials said the dinner, which Obama hosts every year, wasn't intended to focus on any individual issue but rather to give Obama a chance to check in with commanders, who each are responsible for specified areas of defense.
Still, uncertainty about the U.S. strategy to fight the Islamic State group was almost surely on the agenda. Although Obama has authorized airstrikes in Iraq and Syria and sent about 3,000 troops to Iraq to help Iraqi forces, he's resisted calls to send ground troops into combat there.
"I am confident about our ability to push ISIL back in Iraq. Syria, I think, is a more difficult, long-term proposition, in part because the civil war has gotten so bad," Obama told a group of CEOs earlier Wednesday. "But obviously, we're very active not just militarily but diplomatically."
Although the U.S. blames Syrian President Bashar Assad's assault on Syrian civilians for helping create the conditions that led to the Islamic State group's rise, Obama has insisted the military effort isn't designed to oust Assad, preferring to focus on the political situation in neighboring Iraq. That approach led Hagel to write a memo earlier this year to national security adviser Susan Rice — who also attended Wednesday's meeting — questioning the wisdom of a policy that doesn't deal explicitly with Assad's future.
In a new twist on Wednesday, Pentagon officials and independent analysts said that Iranian jets have carried out airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq. Although the U.S. and Iran share the goal of destroying the Islamic State group, they are at odds over Iran's support for Assad's regime, among other issues.