WASHINGTON -- After 26 months in office, President Obama still has not forged a smoothly working national security team that can both nimbly pounce on military crises and deftly manage festering problems, say current and former U.S. officials.
As in previous administrations, much of the problem lies in the friction between civilians working in the White House and military officers and Defense Department civilians working across the Potomac River in the Pentagon. Senior officials describe the predicament as a "culture clash." The miscommunications and misunderstandings between the groups cause frustration and anger, which sometimes even leads to policy paralysis, officials say.
One recent example of this dynamic at work is the Obama administration's tentative, half-way intervention in the Libyan uprising.
"It's a mess," lamented a senior U.S. official. Washington took the bold step of committing military force, but not enough to win. The administration waited to apply very limited military force until it was almost too late, and now, the official says, it has painted the U.S. "into a corner." In the resulting stalemate, Libyan rebels and civilians are being ruthlessly pursued and killed while the United States, in effect, stands helplessly by.
The White House wanted the Pentagon to come up with a low-cost regime-change plan for Libya. Ideally, this strategy would have toppled Col. Muammar Gaddafi without bogging the U.S. down in another inconclusive foreign adventure. And by no means could the plan have included young American infantrymen advancing under fire across the sand.
The military kept insisting that no such option existed. A real regime-change operation, some officers argued, requires "boots on the ground." That was a cost the White House, given rising domestic pressure to bring the troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq, was unwilling to consider.
In long meetings and email exchanges, arguments over strategic details often led to more serious disagreements, the official told The Huffington Post. The White House thought the Pentagon was disrespecting the president by refusing to propose a politically acceptable action plan, while the Pentagon became furious that White House officials didn't "seem to understand what military force can and cannot do,'' the official said.
The White House did not respond to requests for clarification or comment.
THE DANGEROUS CONSEQUENCES OF DISAGREEMENT
Military analysts warn that simmering disputes like this could adversely affect the missions in Libya and elsewhere.
"I worry the [White House] civilians will interfere and mess up" the clear-cut military operation in Libya, said Duke University Professor Peter Feaver, who managed Iraq War policy in the Bush White House from 2005 to 2007.
But, he added, "I worry that the military will do what it wants and ignore the political guidance from the top. The truth is,'' he told The Huffington Post, "both bad things could and have happened in the past.''
"The problem with both Afghanistan and Libya is that the administration sees U.S. interests as real but limited, and wants a military option whose scale and cost is limited,'' said Stephen Biddle, a senior defense analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) who has been involved in these exchanges as an adviser to both the White House and the Pentagon.
"The military doesn't see a limited option that will actually secure U.S. interests -- that option doesn't exist -- and so frustration sets in," he said.
Without the seasoned refereeing of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is about to step down, the friction between senior military and civilian officials is likely to get worse. Because Gates has earned the trust of both the "uniforms'' and the White House, he has been able to mediate to some degree.
His rumored replacement, CIA Director Leon Panetta, clearly has the confidence of the White House. But his ability to advocate forcefully for the military is unknown.
It may help that Marine Gen. James Cartwright is said to be the White House favorite to replace Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who retires in September. Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, won the Obama administration's favor by agreeing to explore lower-cost options than the "surge" of 40,000 additional troops advocated by the Pentagon during the president's Afghanistan strategy review in the fall of 2009.
After months of bruising battles that fall, the White House reluctantly agreed to a surge, but Obama insisted on limiting its duration to 18 months. He promised to begin bringing American troops home in July, 2011. (However, soon afterward, the military quietly won NATO's agreement to extend its military commitment in Afghanistan for another four years, through the end end of 2014.)
CULTURE CLASHES WILL CONTINUE BEYOND OBAMA
Two other factors suggest that civilian-military clashes increasingly will bedevil the Obama White House and its successors.
One is that the current generation of military officers, matured in a decade of combat, want a bigger voice in making policy. In a recent exhaustive study of 4,000 officers, Heidi Urben, an active-duty officer and doctoral candidate at Georgetown University, found that few of them are content with the traditional role of providing advice to civilian policymakers.
More than half of the officers in the random survey said the military should "insist" on clear political and military goals for any proposed operation; 46 percent said senior military leaders should "insist" on a clear exit strategy. And 37 percent of officers agreed with the statement that, to be respected as commander-in-chief, the president should have served in the military.
Another reason to anticipate more civilian-military friction is that conflicts in the near future are more likely to resemble Libya than, say, the invasion of Afghanistan.
In the latter case, both the justification and the means for a muscular military response were clear. As shocked senior officers and Bush administration officials gathered in the Situation Room in the days after the September 11th terrorist attacks, there was never a question of whether the United States' vital interests were at stake, and no concern that the costs of a military response would outweigh the costs of not responding.
Ahead lie more ambiguous conflicts where the United States has real but limited interests.
Any president will want to explore doing something limited "to avoid being criticized if they don't do something," said CFR's Biddle. But in many of these conflicts, the locals at war will have vital interests and fight brutally for their survival, as Gaddafi and his loyalists are doing in Libya.
"That inevitably puts the military in the awkward position of having to explain the difficulty of succeeding with limited force for a goal that for us is limited but for the locals is existential,'' Biddle explained.
In the 1990s, the Clinton administration struggled with this dilemma in the Balkans: The White House wanted to intervene for humanitarian reasons but had no vital interest that would justify a powerful military response, and the Pentagon couldn't come up with a military response that would be effective -- but limited.
"This tension between the military and civilians is common," Biddle said, "and my guess is that it will occur for the next Republican president, too."