EDITOR'S NOTE: The combined reporting and brain power of the Military.com/Defense Tech/DoD Buzz team was brought to bear last week to compile a report card for President Barack Obama's first 100 days as it related to the military and national security. Read on and let us know how you think Obama has done your opinion on his performance so far.
Here's the story:
In his campaign for president, Barack Obama pledged a swift end to the war in Iraq, a new commitment to the defeat of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a strong emphasis on veterans' care and military families and a critical look at Pentagon spending, strategy and conduct in the war on terrorism.
Since his inauguration 100 days ago, Obama has made good on his promise for sweeping change in the military, a new tone in the White House's relationship with troops and a personal investment in easing the burden of military service.
But so far his record has been met with controversy, both for its marked consistency with the policies of George W. Bush and for its radical break from the past that some see as reckless.
Obama was quick to apologize for American conduct in the war on terrorism and relations with some of its allies during his trip to Europe in early April. He called for "mutual respect" toward Iran, which commanders in Iraq say supplies deadly roadside bombs to insurgents. And he has agreed to the release of reportedly gruesome photos of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, an action that some insiders claim will worsen morale in a military service only now recovering from the tarnished public perception stemming from that terrible chapter.
Likewise, in his first 100 days Obama has met several times with veterans organizations to assure them of his personal investment in their care. He's taken on the largest defense firms with a sweeping Pentagon budget reform that slashes costly programs at a time of economic turmoil. And he's proven immensely popular with troops in the field; for instance, last month he was given a standing ovation from those serving in Iraq even as he asked them for continued long-term commitments to Afghanistan. And Obama hasn't needlessly rocked any boats during his first 100 days either, keeping Robert Gates as Defense Secretary, holding off needless controversy over a hasty repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" sexual orientation policy, and continuing the Bush administration's controversial strategy of fighting al Qaeda and Taliban forces with covert Predator drone strikes in Pakistani territory.
President Obama ran on a promise to end the war in Iraq and escalate the war in Afghanistan. So far, he has come through on both.
The trend lines of America's two wars could not be more different. Violence in Iraq has dropped to levels last seen during the month's shortly following the initial American invasion in summer 2003. Iraq has seen a number of high casualty suicide bomb attacks in recent weeks. But the former Sunni insurgency that challenged the Iraqi government and American control for nearly five years is now a scattered remnant, with a few isolated cells still operating.
The Obama administration is proceeding with caution in Iraq. The president announced in a speech at Camp Lejeune, N.C. that America's combat operations in Iraq will end by August of 2010. But at the same time he left open the possibility of significant military advisory role.
A number of American commanders have also hinted in recent days that the pace of the U.S. troop withdrawals might be slowed in light of the continued al Qaeda suicide bomb attacks. These are, for the most part, minor adjustments.
By contrast, situation in Afghanistan appears to be getting worse. Taliban and other insurgent attacks have escalated sharply in the last two years and wide swaths of rural countryside are now under Taliban control.
President Obama outlined his new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan on March 27 and promptly dispatched a much-needed 17,000 additional American troops to counter an expected Taliban spring/summer offensive. The military will also send 4,000 more advisors with the hopes of rapidly expand the Afghan security forces. Obama also redefined American objectives in Afghanistan from building an Afghan democracy to an effort focused on defeating al Qaeda and preventing the emergence of terrorist safe havens – a policy shift that opponents decried as falling short of the goals behind the original invasion in the wake of 9-11. Additionally, many Afghan analysts believe an emphasis on a counterterror-driven policy versus nation building is exactly what said derailed the previous administration's efforts in Afghanistan.
While dialing back public expectations for Afghanistan, the administration is increasing its funding of development efforts and also plans a "surge" of civilian experts to try and build Afghan state institutions at the local level. But a paucity of civilian experts has forced the military to begin combing the reserves to fill billets. At a presentation in Washington last week, Michele Flournoy, Obama's Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy, publicly pleaded for help from the assembled crowd.
Perhaps more promising than the administration's blurry Afghan strategy is an apparent determination to alter the course of U.S. policy towards Pakistan. Since 2001, the U.S. has given Pakistan $10 billion in mostly military assistance. Over the past eight years, Pakistan has done very little to combat the growing strength of the Taliban within its borders, root out the al Qaeda leadership that resides in its eastern frontier cities or reduce the sanctuaries insurgents use as a base from which to launch attacks into Afghanistan. Pakistani experts contend that the militants enjoy support at the highest levels of the Pakistani military leadership.
The Pakistani government has lost control over much of its eastern border territory and its ability to survive the violent attacks of a greatly strengthened Pakistani Taliban is a matter for debate. Promisingly, the Obama team has attached "benchmarks" to its continued military aid to Pakistan and is urging critical reform of the country's military and civilian institutions.
The continued and severe deterioration of security in Pakistan and the direct challenge to the dysfunctional state posed by the Pakistani Taliban, along with other extremist groups, will likely confront the Obama team with its most serious foreign policy challenge.
A Radical Budget
Less than 90 days into the Obama administration, Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered the most sweeping budget changes in at least two decades. Gates pledged on April 6 to kill half-a dozen major acquisition programs and to radically restructure the Army's flagship modernization effort. These actions may well mark the genesis of the post-Cold War military from a procurement point of view, something previous administrations wrestled with but ultimately did little about.
Gates' plans to kill the VH-71 presidential helicopter program, the CSAR-X search and rescue helicopter program, the $26 billion Transformational Satellite program, the Airborne Laser, the Multiple Kill Vehicle missile defense program and, finally, the Next Generation Bomber must wait "until we have a better understanding of the need, the requirement, and the technology," Gates said during an April 6 press conference.
When Gates unveiled his plans, he made it clear that the new balance was driven by strategy. He said about 10 percent of the budget he has proposed for 2010 will go to irregular warfare, 50 percent will be spent on conventional warfare and about 40 percent will be spent on dual purpose capabilities.
Since Gates made his remarks, several elements have emerged. First, through adept timing of the proposals – released on the day Congress left for a two-week recess – and by keeping a lid on leaks up to that point, Gates was able to prepare the battlefield of public opinion (and appears to have largely won on that front).
Second, substantial amounts of new money are flowing into the classified budget for several programs, including one that should provide defense giant Lockheed Martin with substantial cash flow over the next decade, perhaps easing the pain of Gates' curtailing the F-22 Raptor buy.
The new program is an electro-optical spy satellite constellation that President Obama approved one day after Gates' budget speech.
Bear in mind that when then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld killed the Army's Crusader artillery program in 2002 he triggered a tsunami of congressional criticism. But Gates' plan to act on the half-dozen hardest hit programs has drawn comparatively little reaction from the Hill.
President Obama repeated during the campaign he was committed to overturning the controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy that has long defined the relationship between gays and the armed forces.
President Clinton was rebuffed by military brass hardened against the idea when he tried opening military service to homosexuals, but a recent CNN poll found that 81 percent of Americans are in favor of homosexuals serving in the military, and a key commander in Iraq said that generational differences that show more sympathy for lifting the ban among younger troops making a repeal easier to digest.
Last month Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs released a YouTube video in which he reaffirmed the president's goal to ease restrictions against gay and lesbian service members, but cautioned other priorities – two wars, an economy on the brink, and health care – take precedence. But those in favor of reversing "don't ask, don't tell" know that any attempt to amend the law around such a socially explosive issue needs to happen while a Democratic majority in Congress, which eventually will mean activity – and the associated controversy.
While taking on the military industrial complex head-first, Obama appears to be aligned with his predecessor when it comes to expanding the armed forces to meet the needs of a two-front conflict.
The Army is expected to grow by 7,000 Soldiers this year while the Marine Corps' rapid growth to 202,000 active-duty Marines is slated to occur this summer, more than a year ahead of schedule.
The Navy, meanwhile, continues to shed Sailors, dropping from 382,000 in 1999 to 327,000 this year. Expect increased competition across the fleet for positions, duty stations and, of course, promotions.
After years of cuts in the Air Force, the service looks to be holding steady in terms of personnel and may be increasing the number of Airmen in the coming years.
Along with the expansion of the Army and Marine Corps, the Obama administration has made support of military families a top priority.
Despite Michelle Obama's perceived lack of national pride based on a statement she made early in the campaign, efforts since her husband took office suggests men and women in uniform -- and especially their loved ones -- may have no bigger advocate than the fashionable Mrs. Obama. Supporting military families – arguably a no-lose political proposition -- has become the First Lady's signature cause.
There hasn't been a lack of reporting on the hardships enduring by military families during the past eight years of war, but President Obama will enjoy an influential first-hand account of the trials faced by military families in the coming months and years as the first lady plans to regularly meet with military families for candid updates, her office has said.
Many credit her with pushing the president toward a 2.9 percent pay increase for the military in the 2010 budget proposal as well as massive funding increases to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
A Commitment to Veterans
When President Barack Obama began putting his team of advisors together nothing seemed to send a stronger signal of his commitment to veterans than nominating retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki to the job of secretary of Veterans Affairs. It was one of the smoothest appointments Obama made, and Bob Wallace, executive director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Washington, predicts Shinseki will be good for vets and the VA, partly because he has the ability to inspire.
"He was wounded. He lost part of a foot in Vietnam, and yet he went on to become chief of staff of the Army. He will be an inspiration to many," Wallace said. "And he also has a real sincere concern for the troops. ... The VA will do more for veterans under his leadership."
Since January, when Shinseki was sworn into office, those who keep a watchful eye on veterans issues remain largely supportive of Obama, notwithstanding some bumps along the road.
Within two months of Shinseki's appointment, an administration plan to bill the private insurance companies of vets being treated for service-related injuries drew immediate and loud opposition from veterans groups. To backers it made sense: recoup VA costs from private insurance companies that vets are already paying for. But the administration's pitch that the billing would bring in an additional $540 million to the VA each year didn't pass muster with the vets.
"My insurance company didn't send me to Vietnam, my government did," Joe Violante, national legislative director of Disabled American Veterans, was quoted as saying. Obama -- after meeting with leaders from veterans service organizations -- quickly scuttled the proposal.
In April, Obama won accolades from the same groups that hit him over the insurance plan when he announced a new electronic medical records system that would follow troops from active duty to veteran status. The new system will eliminate the need for vets to hand-carry their records from their last duty station to a VA medical center.
Obama also followed through on his campaign promise to boost the VA's budget, committing to increase VA's bottom line by $25 billion over the next five years. The president also expanded healthcare eligibility to more than 500,000 vets previously denied the care and focused more on mental health needs, including PTSD and traumatic brain injuries.
But the most recent vet-related controversy originated neither from the White House nor the Veterans Administration.
In a confidential Department of Homeland Security report highlighting potential threats to the country, DHS noted concerns with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who might get involved with right-wing extremist groups.
Veterans groups and their supporters condemned the report and DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano was forced to apologize for giving insult. Obama essentially stayed out of the fray, a move that American Legion spokesman Craig Roberts believes may be a sign of his growing understanding of vets.
"The President's silence on this issue is, I believe, telling," Roberts told Military.com. "He may wish to criticize the report -- but if he does, he'll betray his chosen Secretary of Homeland Security. That puts him in a tough spot.
"I would think most vets have to be very pleased with the way the Obama administration has handled veterans' issues," he added.
Military.com editors Colin Clark, Bryant Jordan and Christian Lowe contributed to this story, with additional reporting from Contributing Editors Bryan Mitchell and Greg Grant.