When history judges President Obama for the schizophrenic debacle that America’s AfPak strategy has become – and it will – his inability to integrate the advice of military leaders will figure prominently:
The president ordered his advisers to start making plans for a U.S. exit. “This time there would be no announced national security meetings, no debates with the generals. Even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton were left out until the final six weeks.”… the planning process would be left to those who agreed with the president. Dissenters were not invited. It’s hardly the picture of a harmonious policy process or a “tough-guy” leader in sync with the military that the White House was eager to sell….
Max’s post from earlier this week outlines how Obama put his “own political calculations front and center in making national security policy,” from ignoring his generals on the Afghan surge to shutting them out totally from withdrawal planning. The president, having pushed Afghanistan as “the good war” during the election to deflect from his Iraq defeatism, had to at least make a token gesture at trying to stabilize the country. That political necessity clashed with his genuine desire to withdraw, and the combination resulted in the worst possible policy: more American troops in harm’s way, but not enough to win.
The same fundamental clash, where the president’s electoral considerations are in tension with his underlying instincts and the result is an incoherent policy, are playing out on Iran. Again, one is tempted to suspect symptomatically, the advice and judgments of military commanders in the field are getting ignored.
Monday the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake exposed strong disagreements between Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, and various figures in the administration. Last January Mattis wanted to respond to Iranian naval provocations by moving a third aircraft-carrier group to the Persian Gulf. He was rebuffed. The incident seems to be a microcosm of broader differences between Mattis and the Obama White House on Iran:
The carrier-group rebuff in January was one of several for the commander responsible for East Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Working for the Obama administration, Mattis has often found himself the odd man out—particularly when it comes to Iran… Those who have worked with Mattis say his views when it comes to Iran are more in line with those of America’s allies in the Persian Gulf and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than with his own government’s…
The official U.S. national-intelligence estimate on Iran concludes that the country suspended its nuclear weapons work in 2003, but sources close to the general say he believes that Iran has restarted its weapons work and has urged his analysts to disregard the official estimate. While Mattis has largely voiced his dissent about recent U.S. Iran assessments in private, on occasion his displeasure has spilled into the public record.
That bit about developing nuclear weapons undermines the administration’s coordinated media campaign and leakfest on Iran, which is designed to preemptively scapegoat Israel for overreacting and getting Americans killed. It appears to be one of many places where the generals in the field disagree with the president. Given the ineptitude with which this White House has handled Iraq and Afghanistan, the dynamic is far from encouraging.