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Has Obama Missed The Change Boat?

The chance to change the Pentagon comes along once for each administration — barring disasters that prompt major shifts — and the Obama administration’s decision to keep most Bush appointees for the first few months may have lost it that rare opportunity.

The reason is simple: it is often said in Washington that people are policy. Not changing the people leaves you without the surge of energy and ideas that comes with every new administration.

Interviews with a range of Pentagon watchers — liberals, malcontents and professional influencers — over the last three weeks suggest that Obama made a major strategic mistake in keeping Bill Gates and most of the Bush administration’s appointees for the crucial early days of the administration. This is especially true, some of them argue, since Deputy Defense Secretary Bill Lynn was weakened by the furor over his past as head lobbyist for Raytheon.

Obama’s administration does not have time on its side should it want to install its own people and make substantial changes to Pentagon spending. If you look at the calendar, things are mighty tight. The 2010 budget has been largely finished for months. While the administration may be making important long-term choices about a few big programs with little immediate military impact such as Future Combat System for the 2010 budget, the fact is few substantial changes can be made to the military budget this late in the game.

That leaves the administration with the 2011 budget, already in the early stages of being built. This budget can be changed substantially, but it is the services who drive the budget, for better or for worse. And the services don’t look likely to get new secretaries for another three to six months. With actings and deputies reluctant to move on anything controversial, the leaves the services playing serious catch-up should Obama decide to substantially remake the 2011 budget.

As one long-time Pentagon watcher with experience on the Hill and in industry said, the Obama administration “would have to be pretty damn efficient about” getting their own people into place and generating decisions to make major changes to the 2011 budget.

On the operational side, the administration plans to send at least 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, appears to have stepped up Predator strikes inside Pakistan and is moving carefully on any plans to withdraw from Iraq. While these actions do constitute some change and are consistent with Obama’s campaign pledges, they leave the military shouldering more missions and mean higher operational and reset costs at least in the short term. And then there is the budget gag order senior officials are being asked to sign. Is this is a symptom of conflict between the few Obama appointees, or a sign that an administration pledged to greater transparency and honesty in all things has drunk the executive office Cool Aid and is discovering the beauty of operating behind closed doors and claiming executive privilege?

Winslow Wheeler, well known defense policy rock thrower, said Thursday night that the Obama administration has so far done little to change the Pentagon. “So far we’re seen none of that,” Winslow said during a presentation about how the Pentagon must change what it buys and why. It may be too early to make this call. After all, as a source close to the Obama administration argued, they still have many appointments to make and the top people need time to get briefed and come up to speed. But this is an administration that campaigned on change and targeted the military as an important place for that change, at least in operational terms so it’s fair to judge them on that basis.

None of this is to say that Gates and the other Republican appointees are bad or resisting Obama dictates. But as was said at the beginning, people are policy and the people have not changed. Until they do, we should not expect much change, even from an administration that ran on it.

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