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More on the Obama-Military Relationship

I suppose it’s not really surprising that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — technically a two-year appointment, though frequently re-upp’d — would say nice things on the record about his incoming commander-in-chief, but Karen DeYoung’s Washington Post piece displays a noteworthy calm among the brass about Obama. (I wrote about the difficulties and opportunities in the Obama-military relationship here. Obama’s instincts to confront disagreements directly figured heavily in both her piece and mine.) Two points of hers stand out as issues to watch. First:

While some Pentagon officials believe an Iraq withdrawal order could become Obama’s equivalent of the Clinton controversy over gays, several senior Defense Department sources said that Gates, Mullen and Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of the military’s Central Command, are untroubled by the 16-month plan and feel it can be accomplished with a month or two of wiggle room.

That sound you hear is a chainsaw, cutting the legs out from under the rapid right-wingers that want to call Obama a traitor for withdrawing along that timetable. Still, here’s the second point:

These sources noted that Obama himself has said he would not be “careless” about withdrawal and would retain a “residual” force of unspecified size to fight terrorists and protect U.S. diplomats and civilians. The officer most concerned about untimely withdrawal, sources said, is the Iraq commander, Gen. Ray Odierno.

Here’s where the rubber hits the road. The Status of Forces Agreement just approved by the Iraqi Parliament calls for all U.S. troops to leave Iraq by December 2011. (It’s possible they may even have to leave by May 2010.) Not combat troops, all troops — no residual force. Obama hasn’t said exactly what he makes of the deal, but since it does nothing but take a massive controversy off his plate, it’s difficult to see why he’d oppose it.

But what does Odierno think of his new constraints? Does he think the U.S. and the Iraqis just amicably reached consensus on the reasonable limits of the U.S. commitment? Or does he feel betrayed, placed under politically-arrived-upon restrictions that undermine his operational flexibility? One would think that a counterinsurgent would understand that it’s folly to “want” the mission more than the host nation does. But it’s the natural impulse of a commander, for understandable reasons, to want maximum autonomy — especially since his predecessors (especially his immediate predecessor) pretty much enjoyed that. And if Obama makes his embrace of the SOFA clear, what will that mean for the Obama-Odierno relationship?

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