How Biden will deal with the Pentagon's generals

Sean D. Naylor
·National Security Correspondent
·11-min read

On June 29, 2010, Gen. David Petraeus was reaching the end of one of the most hectic weeks of his extraordinary career.

After three lengthy combat tours in Iraq, the Army four-star was 20 months into what would normally be a three-year stint as head of U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla. But a few days earlier, President Barack Obama had asked him to immediately step down from his job in order to take charge of the coalition’s military operations in Afghanistan.

The job switch represented a slight demotion — Central Command’s area of operations included Afghanistan, so Petraeus was moving down a notch in the chain of command — but it was not intended as a slight. The president had just fired his commander in Kabul, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and needed another four-star general to replace him. Petraeus had agreed to step into the breach.

David Petraeus
Gen. David Petraeus. (Linda Davidson/Washington Post via Getty Images)

After a whirlwind week of White House meetings and Capitol Hill confirmation hearings, Petraeus and his wife, Holly, held a small dinner party at their home. The guests included Petraeus’s deputy, Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen, and his senior enlisted adviser, Army Command Sgt. Maj. Marvin Hill, as well as Vice President Joe Biden. “The evening before I left, Vice President Biden showed up at our quarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa with a bottle of wine and flowers for my wife, and he joined us for dinner,” Petraeus told Yahoo News via email.

During his 34-year tenure on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he twice chaired, Biden had taken a keen interest in military issues, frequently visiting U.S. forces deployed overseas. As America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq lengthened and the number of troops killed in action rose, former government officials who worked closely with him said Biden became particularly attuned to the sacrifices demanded of military personnel of all ranks, including the generals and admirals who commanded them. “He just saw the wear and tear on people” from extended tours and repeated deployments, said Puneet Talwar, a foreign policy adviser to Biden in the Senate who also served in the State Department during the Obama administration.

Biden would have been aware of what the Obama administration was asking of the Petraeus family by interrupting the general’s tenure in Tampa and sending him back to the combat zone with no notice for a fourth tour. That understanding, in part, explained his appearance at the going-away dinner, according to Petraeus. “It was, I think, his effort to express his appreciation,” he said.

It was Biden, after all, who had been at least the indirect cause of McChrystal’s firing, and therefore of Petraeus’s rushed deployment. Nonetheless, the vice president’s appearance at the dinner might have surprised some observers. The previous year, he and Petraeus had been on opposite sides of a fierce debate within the Obama administration over military strategy in Afghanistan, and in particular whether to “surge” tens of thousands of more troops into the country, as McChrystal, Petraeus and the Pentagon were recommending.

Biden ultimately lost that debate. Nonetheless, his engagement typified what Petraeus and other former government officials described as Biden’s approach with senior military leaders: highly respectful of their sacrifice and professionalism, but neither cowed by their rank nor afraid to question their judgment.

“We did disagree on some pretty significant policy issues — as was to be expected to a degree, perhaps, given our different responsibilities and perspectives — but he always heard me out, welcomed and considered my views, and engaged in constructive back-and-forth,” Petraeus said. “He was not necessarily one to leave something unsaid — but then neither was I.”

Stanley McChrystal
Then-U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal, right, at a press briefing in 2010. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Petraeus was headed to Kabul because Obama had fired McChrystal over comments attributed to his staff that appeared in a Rolling Stone feature article titled “The Runaway General.” In the piece, McChrystal was quoted as suggesting that he respond to any question about Biden’s views regarding the troop surge by saying, “Are you asking about Vice President Biden? Who’s that?” The article also quotes another staffer who piles on: “Biden? Did you say ‘Bite Me’?”

The Rolling Stone episode took place not long after the argument over the Afghan surge. During that debate, McChrystal, Petraeus, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates had all argued in favor of deploying 30,000 to 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan in order to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy. Biden, supported by Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Marine Gen. James Cartwright and Army Lt. Gen. Doug Lute, the deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan, had advocated for a less troop-heavy approach that combined counterterrorism missions against al-Qaida with training Afghan security forces.

In his book “Worthy Fights,” Leon Panetta, who at different times was CIA director and defense secretary under Obama, describes the standoff. “The generals consistently maintained that anything less than a surge of forty thousand troops would doom the mission,” Panetta writes. Biden “challenged that presumption again and again. More than anyone else in those conversations, Biden raised the specter of Vietnam, of incremental increases in commitment without a clear plan or exit strategy.”

In an interview with Yahoo News, Panetta said Biden was focused on dealing with the terrorist threat to the United States. “Going after terrorists was something that he always supported strongly and felt we ought to do more of in Afghanistan,” Panetta said.

Joe Biden
President-elect Joe Biden. (Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)

When McChrystal gave a speech in October 2009 at a leading London think tank, a questioner asked whether he would be in favor of a more counterterrorism-focused strategy. “The short answer is no,” he replied, adding that such an approach risked turning Afghanistan into “chaosistan.” Although McChrystal hadn’t mentioned Biden, his comments were widely perceived as a public rebuke of the vice president’s preferred option, and therefore of Biden himself.

McChrystal’s remarks in London reinforced a White House perception — shared by Biden — that through carefully placed leaks the military was trying to box Obama in and force him to pick the troop surge option for Afghanistan. In his recently published memoir, “A Promised Land,” Obama wrote that Biden described these Pentagon efforts as “f***ing outrageous.”

When the Rolling Stone article came out in June 2010, it appears to have struck a nerve that was still raw for Biden. Michael Hastings, the article’s author, would later write in his 2012 book “The Operators” that Biden called Obama, “furious” at the quotes about him, and that the president had to spend five minutes “calming him down.”

However, on July 11, 2010, Biden told the ABC News program “This Week” that he had not taken the slights attributed to McChrystal and his staff personally. Nonetheless, the vice president said that after reading the article he’d surveyed six current and former four-star generals on what to do with McChrystal. “Every single one said he had to go,” Biden said, adding that “the president made the right decision.”

That Biden had a half-dozen generals whom he could tap for their candid opinions was not unusual for him. He never served in the military, having received five student draft deferments during the period of the Vietnam War, before receiving a classification for asthma that meant he could be called upon to serve only during a national emergency. But during his 36-year Senate career he took his responsibility to understand military affairs seriously.

According to Talwar, who is on the Biden transition’s State Department agency review team, Biden would frequently meet in his Senate office to discuss national security issues with a handful of former flag officers, including retired Marine Gen. Joseph Hoar and retired Marine Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold. (Newbold, who retired in November 2002, confirmed to Yahoo News that he met twice with Biden, once by himself and once with another general whose identity he could not recall. Hoar could not be reached for comment.)

Joseph Hoar
Retired Gen. Joseph Hoar. (Kevin Sullivan/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

As well as visiting them as part of congressional delegations touring the war zones, then-Sen. Biden would also meet privately on occasion with active-duty generals. According to Talwar, Biden invited then-Maj. Gen. Petraeus to his Capitol Hill office after Petraeus had finished almost a year commanding the 101st Airborne Division during the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

This interest, and the mutual candor of the exchanges, paid off for Biden when he became vice president and Obama put him in charge of policy concerning the Iraq War, according to Talwar. As he quizzed generals and admirals, “the fact that he had taken such an interest in the past made them feel that this was someone they could talk to and relate with, and they were in a sense partners trying to get this right,” Talwar said.

“Joe Biden did a lot of traveling and would always stop by and visit combatant commanders in the regions he went to, and I always had reports that those meetings were handled with tremendous respect between the vice president and the generals that were there,” said Panetta, who served as defense secretary from July 2011 to February 2013. “They were not antagonistic.”

Panetta, who attended many meetings in the White House with Biden and senior military officers, said that although the vice president did not shrink from asking hard questions regarding military assumptions, he always did so respectfully. “I never heard him shout at anybody,” Panetta said.

By making the vice president his point man on Iraq, Obama was putting him in charge of policy for a war Biden had voted to authorize, only to quickly regret it. Biden’s discussions with generals during visits to the country had given him “a keen sense that we had put a lot on the backs of the military” and that “they were being put in a very tough spot in Iraq in particular,” said Talwar, adding that many of the concerns Biden heard about as he spoke with these leaders concerned “what this was doing to the long-term health of the force.”

Joe Biden and Barack Obama
President Barack Obama with Vice President Joe Biden in March 2010. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

Biden also had a keen personal interest in the conduct of the war in Iraq when he became vice president: His son Beau was serving a yearlong tour there as a judge advocate general in the Delaware Army National Guard. While in Iraq, the younger Biden struck up a relationship with then-Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of Multi-National Corps — Iraq, that stemmed from their attending the same Catholic services. That laid the groundwork for Joe Biden to befriend the general when the latter became the head of all U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq in September 2010.

After failing to convince Iraqi Premier Nouri al-Maliki to agree to a status of forces agreement that would permit U.S. troops to remain in Iraq, the Obama administration was forced to withdraw U.S. forces from the country in 2011, a process that Austin oversaw. “Joe was then interested in making sure that we were able to do the job and be able to accomplish it without any kind of complications,” Panetta said. “He had tremendous respect for Lloyd Austin.”

Biden was “impressed with this incredible logistical feat that Gen. Austin pulled off in an environment that was not great,” said Talwar.

On Dec. 8, Biden announced his intention to nominate Austin, who retired in 2016, as his defense secretary.

Biden isn’t just drawing on close associates, however. When NBC News reported last month that national security experts from outside the government had begun briefing the president-elect to prepare him to take office, among the experts listed was none other than Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

The retired general did not respond to a request for comment, but Panetta attributed McChrystal’s role to the lessons Biden had acquired during his long political career. “One thing senators learn early on is you don’t carry a grudge if somebody has abilities that you may need in making a decision,” Panetta said. “You get beyond that.”

Biden’s long years of experience in such matters will stand him in good stead when he becomes commander in chief in January, according to Panetta.

Leon Panetta
Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“Most presidents go through a learning curve in dealing with four-star generals and admirals,” the former defense secretary said. That process typically includes an “initial period in which there’s a lot of hesitancy” and a new president is inclined to take the word of his generals “as very persuasive,” he said. “I saw Clinton go through that, and I saw President Obama go through that period as well.”

At the top of the learning curve, presidents finally understand the importance of questioning their military leaders, because “ultimately, you’re the one that makes the final decision as to what happens,” Panetta said.

“I don’t think Joe Biden needs to go through that learning curve,” he added. “He’s been dealing with generals a long time.”

_____

Read more from Yahoo News: