’08 Military Times poll: Wary feelings about Obama

Troops cite inexperience, Iraq timetable
By Brendan McGarry - Staff writer
Posted : Monday Dec 29, 2008 13:25:18 EST

When asked how they feel about President-elect Barack Obama as commander in chief, six out of 10 active-duty service members say they are uncertain or pessimistic, according to a Military Times survey.

In follow-up interviews, respondents expressed concerns about Obama’s lack of military service and experience leading men and women in uniform.

“Being that the Marine Corps can be sent anywhere in the world with the snap of his fingers, nobody has confidence in this guy as commander in chief,” said one lance corporal who asked not to be identified.

For eight years, members of the U.S. military have served under a Republican commander in chief who reflected their generally conservative views and led them to war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Now, the troops face change not only at the very top of the chain of command, as Obama nears his Jan. 20 inauguration, but perhaps in mission, policy and values.

Underlying much of the uncertainty is Obama’s stated 16-month timetable for pulling combat troops out of Iraq, as well as his calls to end the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy to allow gays to serve openly in the military, according to survey responses and interviews.

“How are you going to safely pull combat troops out of Iraq?” said Air Force 1st Lt. Rachel Kleinpeter, an intelligence officer with the 100th Operations Support Squadron at RAF Mildenhall, England. “And if you’re pulling out combat troops, who are you leaving to help support what’s left? What happens if Iraq falls back into chaos? Are we going to be there in five years doing the same thing over again?”

When asked who has their best interests at heart — Obama or President George W. Bush — a higher percentage of respondents picked Bush, though Bush has lost ground over time. About half of the respondents said Bush has their best interests at heart this year, the same percentage as last year but a decline from 69 percent in 2004.

Nearly one-third of respondents — including eight out of 10 black service members — said they are optimistic about their incoming boss.

Even some service members who voted against Obama — only 1 in 4 supported him over Sen. John McCain in a pre-election survey of Military Times subscribers —now express goodwill toward him as their new commander in chief.

“Overall, the prospect of having someone who isn’t necessarily tied to old strategies is a good thing,” said Air Force Master Sgt. David Ortegon, who said he voted for McCain. “Sometimes you need a fresh perspective to be able to handle our military readiness and the needs of the nation.”

The findings are part of the sixth annual Military Times survey of subscribers to Army Times, Air Force Times, Navy Times and Marine Corps Times newspapers. This year’s survey, conducted Dec. 1 through Dec. 8, included more than 1,900 active-duty respondents.

The responses are not representative of the opinions of the military as a whole. The survey group overall under-represents minorities, women and junior enlisted service members, and over-represents soldiers.

But as a snapshot of the professional corps, the responses highlight the challenges Obama faces as he prepares to take command of military careerists with different political and cultural attitudes.

In keeping with previous surveys, nearly half of the respondents described their political views as conservative or very conservative. Slightly more than half said they consider themselves Republicans, 22 percent independents and 13 percent Democrats.

Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University who has written extensively about civil-military relations, said a degree of uncertainty among service members toward Obama is appropriate, given their questions about how he will govern as commander in chief.

“Those numbers don’t convince me he has got a big problem on his hands because what he is seeing is not military hostility, but rather military caution, and caution that is reasonable because he has never been in the position of this office,” Feaver said. “It’s sensible and understandable that they have doubts about him.

“They respect the office of the commander in chief,” Feaver said. “As long as he wields that office responsibly, then these numbers need not morph into a problem.”

David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland, said respondents’ optimism toward Obama can be partially attributed to confidence in his military advisers, including Richard Danzig, former secretary of the Navy, and retired Gen. James Jones Jr., former commandant of the Marine Corps and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe.

On Dec. 1, the day the survey was released, Obama announced his national security team, including Jones as national security adviser and Robert Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, as defense secretary.

“There is an understanding that the president doesn’t do all his own paperwork,” Segal said. “The quality of any president is going to depend on the quality of the people he has around him.”

When to leave Iraq

While nearly half of the respondents said they disapprove of Obama’s proposal to withdraw combat brigades from Iraq within 16 months of taking office, a slightly higher percentage said they support the Status of Forces Agreement calling for U.S. forces to leave the country by the end of 2011.

Army Spc. Robbie Blackford, an infantryman with C Troop, 1-71st Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, who returned from a 14-month tour in Iraq in late October, said Obama should gradually reduce the number of U.S. service members in Iraq.

“In my mind, things were changing to the point where we could get out of there and the Iraqis could take over their own country,” Blackford said. “I think that he should just pull out a little at a time.”

Although realistic about the challenges ahead, troops overwhelmingly support the mission in Afghanistan.

Eight out of 10 respondents said the U.S. should have gone to war in Afghanistan. Nearly the same amount support plans to boost the number of troops there by more than 20,000, for a total of more than 50,000.

“We just don’t have enough manpower to be out there doing what we need to do, winning the hearts and minds and so forth,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Jay Brewer, a meteorological and oceanographic officer with Marine Forces Pacific who has twice deployed to Iraq. “In Iraq, when we increased the number of troops, we were able to increase our presence full-time in certain areas.”

While the majority of respondents expressed some degree of optimism the U.S. will succeed in Afghanistan, 30 percent said troops will need to stay for more than a decade to achieve its goals.

The survey results also suggest that despite the military’s efforts to address mental-health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, stigma associated with the conditions lingers.

About 15 percent of active-duty respondents said they are suffering from or have suffered from PTSD, TBI or other mental health issues.

Most of those respondents said they sought help with the treatment. But four out of 10 said they believed seeking care for such disabilities would negatively affect their career.

Navy Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class William Rioseco, an instructor at Center for Security Forces, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, said mandatory post-deployment screening across all services would help to reduce stigma associated with mental health disorders.

“Like PT, it should be mandatory. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in action, or you’re doing support,” he said. “If you’re in a combat zone, you’re subject for mandatory psychoanalysis because people can get affected by different things.”

More poll results

* More plan to re-enlist, citing lousy economy

* Bush reclaims some support for Iraq

* Troops oppose repeal of ‘don’t ask’

* Download the raw results

* How we did the survey

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