Admiral Mullen is a supple intellect and adroit interpersonal politician in marked contrast to his two hapless, unlamented predecessors. He effortlessly maintains zero daylight between him and the Commander in Chief while still sending oblique messaging. We saw more nuance in him being up close than guessed before reluctantly accepting tonight’s invitation.
As Mullen recited the Administration line several points seeped through in interstitial spread spectrum whisper. First, it’s clear (to the Stiftung, at least) Mullen remains unenthused about the State/White House slap-dash ‘winging it’ decision-making. He is aligned with his boss, although Gates did the patented Washington-two-step earlier on the Hill, assuring that ‘all alternatives were *exhaustively* examined’. (Clever phrasing).
Second, Mullen is silent about the future besides notional no-fly command turnover to NATO. He seconded Gates hope that those with more immediate regional or local interests would step up and support/arm/train the ragtag ‘rebels’. Both he Gates on the Hill today conceded that other than a few individuals claiming to speak for the rebels, ‘we have no real idea who or what the opposition is’. Both, however, are confident that as of tonight Al-Qaeda’s role is lower than negligible. (Try squaring that one).
While defending the White House Mullen also all but eviscerated any notion of an Obama Doctrine [sic]. Without the snark, Mullen more or less said what the Siftung said earlier — this stumble into conflict arose from improvisational expediency. His claim it’s all worth it because we averted a bloodbath at Benghazi seeming half-hearted. More specifically, he declared after Libya there would not be more humanitarian intervention; from Yemen all the way to Mynamar ‘no marching down the list from 1 to 12.’ Libya is a one off. (He and we hope.)
Adopting formal and avuncular stylings, the only time an emphatic edge cropped into his voice was his declaration of no American boots on the ground in a third Muslim nation. Whether that covers the DO personnel there now or future seconded special operators left unexplored this time. As Buck Turgidson once said of General Ripper, “He’s already invalidated that policy”.
Mullen’s got impressive interpersonal empathy, able to calibrate comments like a supple 5 speed manual transmission, down shifting when necessary or rapid firing to 5th. We’ve spent more than a little time with flag rank officers as you know, Dear Reader. If Mullen arguably is not as overtly intellectually brilliant as Art Cebrowski, he has the gift of sharing insights with graceful fortitude.
Significantly, he spent perhaps equal time underscoring his known concern that U.S. finances are the greatest security threat to the nation. It’s clear that both his and Gates’ hearts are in the right place. Nonetheless, Mullen is a loyal bureaucrat – he will only tip so many rice bowls. How disappointing his robotic defense of the paltry and notional $70 billion in cuts over five years from projected DoD budget growth.
A change agent must come from outside. And no change agent can ever be spelled Leon Panetta.
The cultural and institutional divide between civilians (State and White House) and military is at once significant and possibly overstated. Mullen obliquely referred to it (leaving room to interpret it in the broader sociological sphere or the problems of the academies like Colorado Springs still fomenting hard core apocalyptic evangelism).
As Obama confronts the booby trap he set himself escalating Afghanistan promising withdrawals this year, the White House definitely could use people familiar with military culture. They’re lucky that Mullen today can meet them more than 1/2 way across that divide unburdened with Petraeus’ unctuous, manipulative ambition. It’s fortuitous but also temporary.