July 7, 2008, Colorado Springs, CO – Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama knows that to win the vote of current and former military members and their families, he has to prove himself.
“Precisely because I have not served in uniform, I am somebody who strongly believes I have to earn the trust of men and women in uniform,” Obama said in a July 2 interview with Military Times as he contrasted his lack of service with that of Republican presidential candidate John McCain, a Navy retiree and Vietnam veteran who has years of experience in Congress working on national security issues.
“I do not presume that from the day I am sworn in, every single service man or woman suddenly says, ‘This guy knows what he is doing,‘” said Obama, a freshman U.S. senator from Illinois, in his most extensive interview to date on a wide range of military issues.
Earning trust, he said, means listening to advice from military people, including top uniformed leaders, combatant commanders and senior noncommissioned officers and petty officers. It also means standing up for the military on critical issues and keeping promises, Obama said.
The 46-year-old former community organizer and civil rights attorney will formally become the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee at the party’s August convention in Denver.
Obama said he hopes the military community will see him as “a guy looking out for us and not someone trying to score cheap political points.”
Military members and their families deserve better pay and benefits, he said, and although money might be hard to find for a generous increase, he supports increasing basic pay to keep up with inflation and private-sector salaries, and he believes housing allowances need to be increased so young service members and their families can afford adequate places to live.
He also wants to spend more to improve veterans’ health care and reduce the wait for a disability claim to be processed.
“I don’t know a higher priority than making sure that the men and women who are putting themselves in harm’s way, day in and day out, are getting decent pay and decent benefits — so that when they return home as veterans, they don’t have to wait six months to get benefits that they’ve earned, that they’re not winding up homeless on the streets, that they’re being screened for post-traumatic stress disorder, that if a spouse is widowed, the benefits are sufficiently generous,” he said. “These are just basic requirements of a grateful nation.”
Obama said he did not want to be more specific because he did not want to make promises he might not be able to keep. “I think we can do a much better job than we’re doing right now,” he said. But, he added, “I want to be honest: We are going to be in a tight budget situation. We’re not going to be able to do everything all at once.”
He also wants an end to stop-loss orders that extend active duty beyond separation or retirement dates, and he wants a deployment schedule that provides more stability and time at home for families.
One way to relieve this stress is to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps. Obama’s plans for a 65,000-person increase in the Army and a 27,000-person increase in the Marine Corps match plans already underway. He said he is not sure about personnel levels for the Navy and Air Force, but “I don’t anticipate a reduction” for those two services.
Troops in Iraq
Pulling U.S. combat forces out of Iraq would free up money for personnel programs and a host of other military needs, Obama said, citing the $10 billion to $12 billion monthly cost of military operations there. He did not mention that funding for Iraq has, so far, been emergency funding on top of the regular peacetime budget that would not automatically be diverted to other military programs.
Getting U.S. combat troops out of Iraq is a key Obama goal, and one where he said he is misunderstood. His campaign materials say Obama would begin withdrawing combat troops from Iraq, one or two brigades a month, as soon as he takes office. But he added in the interview that the start of the withdrawal also depends on the security conditions on the ground.
Obama said he wants to reduce combat troops, leaving forces to continue training Iraqi police and military officers, providing security for U.S. officials and facilities and for counterterrorism operations. Exactly when and how quickly this would happen depends on the situation in the field, he said, acknowledging that military commanders on the ground would play a key role in recommending what steps to take.
Obama said he would not order any “precipitous” withdrawal of combat forces. Instead, he said, his policy is that “we should be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless in getting in.”
“I have always said that as commander in chief, I would seek the advice and counsel of our generals,” Obama said. But, in the end, “it is the job of commander in chief to set the strategy.”
A strategic factor in the decision to keep forces in Iraq includes, for him, a question about the risk of not having enough combat-ready forces for other operations.
“If we have only one battle-ready brigade outside the Iraq rotation to respond to other risks, that’s not good strategic planning by the commander in chief,” he said. “If we have a situation in Afghanistan where we are seeing more and more violence in the eastern portion of Afghanistan, at a time when we’ve actually increased the forces down there and we’ve got some of the best battle-tested operations deployed there, and we’re still seeing increases in violence, what that tells me is that we’ve got real problems.”
Obama said he believes he would be a far better commander in chief than McCain.
“I believe that I have a better grasp of where we need to take the country, and how we should use the power of … not just our military, but all of our power in order to achieve American security,” Obama said. “I think I have a better sense than he does of where we need to go in the future.
“As somebody who has worked on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on critical issues like nuclear proliferation … as somebody who has traveled widely and grew up traveling around the world, I think I have a clear sense of the nature of both the transnational threats and challenges but also the opportunities that are going to determine our safety and security for the foreseeable future. And that’s why I think I can be an effective commander in chief,” Obama said.
Accountability in leadership
During the interview, Obama discussed the issue of accountability for military leaders, including times when, he said, he believes the Bush administration has blamed senior officers for things that were not their fault. He contrasted his own personal standards of accountability that he said would apply if he becomes president.
“There are times during the course of this war where I felt that the military was blamed for bad planning on the civilian side, and that, I think, is unfortunate,” he said.
He acknowledged, however, that sometimes it is important to hold military leaders responsible for their actions.
Obama also spoke of rocking the boat. In what seems certain to be one of his more controversial proposals for the military, Obama said he wants to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.
Equity and fairness are part of the reason for lifting the ban on acknowledged homosexuals serving in the military, Obama said, but there are practical reasons, too — like getting “all hands on deck” when the nation needs people in uniform. “If we can’t field enough Arab linguists, we shouldn’t be preventing an Arab linguist from serving his or her country because of what they do in private,” he said, referring to the 2006 discharge of about 60 linguists for violating the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on service by homosexuals.
“I want to make sure that we are doing it in a thoughtful and principled way. But I do believe that at a time when we are short-handed, that everybody who is willing to lay down their lives on behalf of the United States and can do so effectively, can perform critical functions, should have the opportunity to do so.”
Asked how he would deal with opposition from within the Pentagon, Obama smiled and said: “Well, I’m a pretty persuasive guy.” But he acknowledged that pushing such a legal change through Congress would be more challenging. “We have to distinguish whether there are functional barriers to doing this and are people prepared for the political heat.”
Another potential boat-rocking issue involves the use of private military companies to do work once performed by uniformed troops. Obama said he would seek to limit military-related work in combat zones that is turned over to private contractors.
“There is room for private contractors to work in the mess hall providing basic supplies and doing some logistical work that might have been done in-house in the past,” he said. “I am troubled by the use of private contractors when it comes to potential armed engagements. I think it puts our troops in harm’s way.”
Obama also said he is troubled by the long-term effect of such a policy. “Over time, you are, I believe, eroding the core of our military’s relationship to the nation and how accountability is structured,” he said. “I think you are privatizing something that is what essentially sets a nation-state apart, which is a monopoly on violence.”