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Topic: Martin Dempsey

The Problem with Obama and His Generals

One of the key narratives of the American Civil War was President Abraham Lincoln’s long search for a general who could fight and win battles and put a war-winning strategy into action. But when historians look back on the country’s current conflicts in the Middle East, that formula may be reversed. Instead of lacking generals who wish to engage the enemy and defeat them, what the nation may need more is a president who is as committed to victory as his soldiers. That’s the conclusion many observers are drawn to after listening to the testimony of General Martin Dempsey yesterday when he told a Senate committee that he may yet recommend the use of U.S. ground forces against ISIS even though that is something that President Obama has explicitly rejected.

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One of the key narratives of the American Civil War was President Abraham Lincoln’s long search for a general who could fight and win battles and put a war-winning strategy into action. But when historians look back on the country’s current conflicts in the Middle East, that formula may be reversed. Instead of lacking generals who wish to engage the enemy and defeat them, what the nation may need more is a president who is as committed to victory as his soldiers. That’s the conclusion many observers are drawn to after listening to the testimony of General Martin Dempsey yesterday when he told a Senate committee that he may yet recommend the use of U.S. ground forces against ISIS even though that is something that President Obama has explicitly rejected.

The president repeated his vow that American troops would not fight the terrorists on the ground today when he spoke to an audience of soldiers at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. While trying, not always successfully, to sound appropriately belligerent, the president made it abundantly clear that that his vow to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terror group is conditional on finding local proxies to fight the war he has been dragged into by circumstance and the shifting tides of public opinion. The purpose of the speech and, indeed, a rare all-out lobbying push in Congress by a normally diffident White House, was to convince the country of the need to fund American participation in the conflict. But the contrast between the recommendations he has reportedly been getting from his military advisors and his adamant refusal to even leave the door open to U.S. action on the ground makes it hard to believe that he is really serious about winning this war.

As Eli Lake and Josh Rogin report today in the Daily Beast, Dempsey’s statement is not the only instance of military men urging the president to keep an open mind about how best to win the war. Other advisers, including General John Allen, who has been appointed to lead the anti-ISIS effort, not only criticized the administration for its foolish decision to abandon Iraq that gave ISIS the opening it needed but has been calling for a “robust” effort against ISIS for months.

Some may interpret this disconnect as a standoff between trigger-happy generals and a thoughtful president who thinks carefully before acting (Obama’s cherished self-evaluation of his leadership style that he never tires of extolling). But that is both inaccurate as well as misleading. Generals and admirals are always the last ones to wish to see their cherished institutions and infrastructure hauled into a fight whose outcome is always uncertain. Rather, it is the fact that having found themselves tasked with the winning of a war against a terrorist threat that the American people now rightly think essential, the military understands that this requires a war-winning strategy.

The president embarrassed himself earlier this month when he said that he was still searching for a strategy to defeat ISIS, a position he reversed last week when he announced his order for the campaign. But by setting absolute limits on the willingness of the United States to actually fight and win the conflict, he sent ISIS a signal that he was not as committed to battle as they were.

The point here isn’t necessarily to advocate that the use of American troops in Iraq or Syria is a good or necessary thing. It is to note, as General Dempsey did in a rare moment of complete candor in congressional testimony, that it is not possible to rule their use out if the U.S. actually wants to win rather than merely manage the conflict. You don’t have to be another Lincoln, let alone a Napoleon or Alexander, to understand that when a political leader telegraphs the enemy that his country won’t commit to fighting them on the ground, it will encourage that foe to hang on. If the fight with ISIS is as vital to U.S. security as Obama now says it is—and he’s right about that—it’s fair to ask why he isn’t willing to keep all options on the table.

Pretending that the U.S. can beat ISIS by leading from behind with foreign proxies doing the hard slog on the ground is a formula for stalemate at best and possibly defeat. U.S. air power can influence the outcome of the battle and even do serious damage to ISIS. But such wars are won with troops on the ground pursuing counterinsurgency tactics.

President Obama is burdened with serious political constraints in a war-weary country and untrustworthy and often unsavory allies who are also opposed to ISIS. But even as we make allowances for the handicaps that he is laboring under, there is no disguising his lack of enthusiasm for the task as well as his lack of commitment to victory. What America lacks is not a strategy but a president who is ready to lead the country to victory. That will have to change if U.S. forces are to have any hope of success.

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The Zen of Defense Budget Cuts: Rashomon or Kabuki?

Max and Peter have already discussed the scale and meaning of President Obama’s recently revealed defense budget cuts. Yet there are so many different interpretations of what is really happening that it feels like a Washington D.C. version of Rashomon. I would add only three points, each of which has a different interpretation of the issue.

First, there is strong betting in Washington that all this is kabuki theater. The administration already submitted an FY1015 budget that is $115 billion above sequestration levels, while going forward, Congress will keep delaying cuts until sequestration simply falls apart. If so, then the past 36 months of angst have been a gigantic waste of time. Not because some weapons systems have not been delayed or terminated and end strength reduced, but because all this political theater has done nothing to reduce the national deficit (as anyone remotely aware of fiscal reality already knew).

Worse, the military has been forced to take a “six of one, half dozen of the other” approach that leaves it with no clarity as to its real future sizing or posture, and is unclear how to best reshape itself to deal with new threats. In a sense, however, a kabuki-like outcome would actually be good news for the long run, as the military will be spared the worst of the cuts, as Congress puts money back in for favored programs, and as the whole idea of placing an uneven burden on the Pentagon to cut government discretionary spending simply fades from sight. It’s almost unbelievably unserious governing, but it’s all kabuki.

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Max and Peter have already discussed the scale and meaning of President Obama’s recently revealed defense budget cuts. Yet there are so many different interpretations of what is really happening that it feels like a Washington D.C. version of Rashomon. I would add only three points, each of which has a different interpretation of the issue.

First, there is strong betting in Washington that all this is kabuki theater. The administration already submitted an FY1015 budget that is $115 billion above sequestration levels, while going forward, Congress will keep delaying cuts until sequestration simply falls apart. If so, then the past 36 months of angst have been a gigantic waste of time. Not because some weapons systems have not been delayed or terminated and end strength reduced, but because all this political theater has done nothing to reduce the national deficit (as anyone remotely aware of fiscal reality already knew).

Worse, the military has been forced to take a “six of one, half dozen of the other” approach that leaves it with no clarity as to its real future sizing or posture, and is unclear how to best reshape itself to deal with new threats. In a sense, however, a kabuki-like outcome would actually be good news for the long run, as the military will be spared the worst of the cuts, as Congress puts money back in for favored programs, and as the whole idea of placing an uneven burden on the Pentagon to cut government discretionary spending simply fades from sight. It’s almost unbelievably unserious governing, but it’s all kabuki.

A second interpretation, however, is much more troubling. President Obama is about to hand his predecessor one of the most hobbled militaries in recent American history, one that Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said would be so unready that it would be “immoral” to use. If the president and Congress are indeed serious about their unserious budget cutting, then when sequestration finally takes effect in 2016, tens of billions of dollars will have to be precipitously cut. Max has already outlined what that would mean in terms of canceled and mothballed ships and planes, not to mention personnel cuts.

But just imagine what type of military the next president would inherit on January 20, 2017. Instead of a bad policy competently implemented, the incoming commander in chief will get a disastrous policy incompetently shoved down the military’s throat. When that force is unable to carry out needed missions does anyone think that Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Rand Paul, or others will be blamed? They all will escape mainstream criticism even as they have handed America a military that will be expected to carry out its full range of missions with dramatically lower levels of readiness and capacity.

Both of these interpretations above are, to me, among the clearest condemnations of the overall unseriousness, incompetence, and unaccountable behavior by all our nationally elected leaders. Washington D.C. increasingly is a cabal run against the interests of the American people even as it endlessly fleeces them.

There is a third interpretation, however, one that tracks more closely with Peter’s observation. He argues that President Obama is consciously engineering America’s decline. From a slightly angled perspective, nothing he is doing runs counter to a strategic agenda that seeks to reduce the country’s ability to play the type of global role it has for the past 70 years. Put another way, if you’re not really interested in holding the line against instability, coercion, and aggression abroad–if you don’t plan on confronting those states that are causing disruption in the world–then you don’t need the type of military we’ve fielded for decades.

Every cut, whether thought through or not, makes sense if it derives from a manifestation of political will that seeks a radically different global role for the United States. A shrunken military means America must correspondingly reduce its presence, effectiveness, and influence abroad. From that perspective, President Obama knows exactly the type of military he wants to bequeath to his successor, not to mention what type of country.

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The Price of Dempsey’s Different Clocks

When General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters yesterday that Israel and the United States are on “different clocks” regarding Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, he was doing more than stating what has already become obvious. Dempsey’s purpose in saying so publicly was more evidence that Washington is determined to ward off pressure from Israel to abandon its complacent attitude toward the Iranian threat. But it is also just one more instance in which the Obama administration has sought to create more daylight between U.S. and Israeli positions on security matters. While the president and his advisors think they are trying to teach the Netanyahu government a lesson, the main effect of this public disagreement is to encourage the Iranians to think that they don’t have to worry that much about either Israel or the United States.

Washington is frustrated because the Israelis won’t shut up about the consequences of a Western policy that has allowed the Iranians to keep refining uranium and getting closer to their nuclear goal. Dead-end diplomacy and loosely enforced sanctions have merely played into Tehran’s hands and the Israelis have been vocal about the fact that they are not going to simply stand by and wait patiently until Iran accumulates so much nuclear material stored in hardened underground bunkers that it will be too late to do anything about it. Defense Minister Ehud Barak is said to believe that moment will pass within a few months rather than the years the Americans say it will take. But rather than work with the Israelis and give them some concrete assurance that the president meant it when he said he would not allow Iran to go nuclear, the main reaction from the White House has been pique at Netanyahu’s chutzpah and public signals indicating the Israelis are on their own. This strengthens the security of neither the U.S. nor Israel. All it does is illustrate Mitt Romney’s point about the foolishness of the administration’s Middle East policy.

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When General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters yesterday that Israel and the United States are on “different clocks” regarding Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, he was doing more than stating what has already become obvious. Dempsey’s purpose in saying so publicly was more evidence that Washington is determined to ward off pressure from Israel to abandon its complacent attitude toward the Iranian threat. But it is also just one more instance in which the Obama administration has sought to create more daylight between U.S. and Israeli positions on security matters. While the president and his advisors think they are trying to teach the Netanyahu government a lesson, the main effect of this public disagreement is to encourage the Iranians to think that they don’t have to worry that much about either Israel or the United States.

Washington is frustrated because the Israelis won’t shut up about the consequences of a Western policy that has allowed the Iranians to keep refining uranium and getting closer to their nuclear goal. Dead-end diplomacy and loosely enforced sanctions have merely played into Tehran’s hands and the Israelis have been vocal about the fact that they are not going to simply stand by and wait patiently until Iran accumulates so much nuclear material stored in hardened underground bunkers that it will be too late to do anything about it. Defense Minister Ehud Barak is said to believe that moment will pass within a few months rather than the years the Americans say it will take. But rather than work with the Israelis and give them some concrete assurance that the president meant it when he said he would not allow Iran to go nuclear, the main reaction from the White House has been pique at Netanyahu’s chutzpah and public signals indicating the Israelis are on their own. This strengthens the security of neither the U.S. nor Israel. All it does is illustrate Mitt Romney’s point about the foolishness of the administration’s Middle East policy.

As the Times of Israel reports, General Dempsey spoke about the issue while on a flight to Afghanistan and acknowledged that Israelis view the issue differently from the Americans:

“They are living with an existential concern that we are not living with,” he said, according to AFP.

Dempsey added that he and Israel Defense Forces Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz spoke on a bi-weekly basis to coordinate intelligence, despite gaps in understanding how close Iran is to the point of no return.

“We compare intelligence, we discuss regional implications. And we’ve admitted to each other that our clocks are turning at different rates,” he said.

This is a critical problem for which the Israelis are being blamed in the world press since they are viewed as troublemakers or provocateurs because they refuse to allow the Obama administration to go on pretending that diplomacy and sanctions have a chance to change the minds of the ayatollahs. But the problem with this view of the situation is that no one in Washington is prepared to seriously argue that the current Western policy has a chance of success. Washington is continuing to act as if the failed P5+1 talks can be revived or that sanctions will miraculously bring Tehran to its knees. But the only purpose of this pretense is to stall the discussion about Iran until after the November election when presumably the president will have the “flexibility” to propose an even more generous deal to the Islamist regime.

But even if we were to assume the president is sincere about his desire to stop Iran, his decision to allow administration officials to publicly express their disagreement with Israel is undermining any chance that diplomacy could ever succeed. So long as the Iranians are convinced the Americans are focused more on squelching Israeli self-defense than on halting their nuclear program, they are the ones who will show patience. They don’t think Obama is serious when he pledges that he will neither accept nor seek to merely contain a nuclear Iran. Nor do they think he will ever use force against them.

As in its past gaffes on the Israel-Palestinian diplomatic process, the daylight that Obama has opened between Washington and Jerusalem is merely serving to sink any hope that the goals he claims to support can be accomplished. The more American officials talk about Israel and the U.S. having “different clocks,” the more certain it is that the Iranian leadership thinks they can run out the clock on Western diplomacy and achieve their nuclear ambition unscathed.

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Rep. Ryan: “I Misspoke” About the Generals

In an interview with CNN’s Candy Crowley, Rep. Paul Ryan backed away from his comments that questioned whether generals were being honest with Congress by supporting the Obama administration’s defense budget proposal.

Ryan told Crowley that he “misspoke” last week, and said he has called Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and apologized:

“Yes – no, I really misspoke, to be candid with you, Candy. I didn’t mean to make that kind of an impression. So I was clumsy in how I was describing the point I was trying to make. And the point I was trying to make – and General Dempsey and I spoke after that. And we – I wanted to give that point to him, which was, that was not what I was attempting to say.

What I was attempting to say is, President Obama put out his budget number for the Pentagon first, $500 billion cut, and then they began the strategy review to conform the budget to meet that number.

We think it should have been the other way around. What is the best strategy for our military and so we have a strategy driven budget. Now the result of our review of the president’s budget on the military was we should cut $3 billion from the Pentagon budget over the next 10 years instead of the $500 billion.”

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In an interview with CNN’s Candy Crowley, Rep. Paul Ryan backed away from his comments that questioned whether generals were being honest with Congress by supporting the Obama administration’s defense budget proposal.

Ryan told Crowley that he “misspoke” last week, and said he has called Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and apologized:

“Yes – no, I really misspoke, to be candid with you, Candy. I didn’t mean to make that kind of an impression. So I was clumsy in how I was describing the point I was trying to make. And the point I was trying to make – and General Dempsey and I spoke after that. And we – I wanted to give that point to him, which was, that was not what I was attempting to say.

What I was attempting to say is, President Obama put out his budget number for the Pentagon first, $500 billion cut, and then they began the strategy review to conform the budget to meet that number.

We think it should have been the other way around. What is the best strategy for our military and so we have a strategy driven budget. Now the result of our review of the president’s budget on the military was we should cut $3 billion from the Pentagon budget over the next 10 years instead of the $500 billion.”

This should put that matter to rest, though it was an unfortunate unforced error for Ryan to make the same week he rolled out his budget plan. The proposal is enough of a magnet for criticism on its own without the additional controversy. Ryan wasn’t necessarily wrong in his assertion, but putting the generals on the spot like that is unhelpful, and of course they’re going to stand by their original testimony. Whatever military brass is telling Ryan behind the scenes, and I don’t doubt it’s critical of the president’s proposals, this was a losing way for him to frame the argument.

But Ryan was right to steer the conversation back to the real issue, which is that the president wrote down a budget cut number and asked the Pentagon to meet it. As Republicans have been arguing, that’s a risky way to handle reductions. Few would say the defense budget should be exempt from scrutiny and potential cuts, but they should be with security as the priority, not an arbitrary number handed down by the administration.

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Rep. Ryan Wrong to Question Generals?

The progressive movement – which I seem to remember accusing a certain general of betraying the country in a full-page New York Times ad a few years back – is suddenly apoplectic that Rep. Paul Ryan would dare suggest that Pentagon leadership may not be expressing their full reservations about President Obama’s defense budget cuts.

The Rachel Maddow blog slams Ryan’s “unbridled chutzpah,” and concludes:

And finally, there’s the biggest, most jaw-dropping angle of them all: Paul Ryan, who has never served in the military a day in his life, believes he knows better than the U.S. military leadership what funding levels are needed to “keep people safe.”

Amazing. Just amazing.

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The progressive movement – which I seem to remember accusing a certain general of betraying the country in a full-page New York Times ad a few years back – is suddenly apoplectic that Rep. Paul Ryan would dare suggest that Pentagon leadership may not be expressing their full reservations about President Obama’s defense budget cuts.

The Rachel Maddow blog slams Ryan’s “unbridled chutzpah,” and concludes:

And finally, there’s the biggest, most jaw-dropping angle of them all: Paul Ryan, who has never served in the military a day in his life, believes he knows better than the U.S. military leadership what funding levels are needed to “keep people safe.”

Amazing. Just amazing.

This, from a pundit who just published a book this week premised on the idea the U.S. needs to shrink national defense – and who also has no military experience. Maybe not the best time to be throwing stones.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey disputed Ryan’s remarks, and said he stood by his support for the defense cuts:

“There’s a difference between having someone say they don’t believe what you said versus … calling us, collectively, liars,” Gen. Dempsey told reporters aboard a U.S. military aircraft after a four-day visit to Latin America.  ”My response is: I stand by my testimony. This was very much a strategy-driven process to which we mapped the budget.”

Gen. Dempsey said the budget “was a collaborative effort” among the top officers of the military branches as well as combat leaders.

It didn’t sound like Ryan was calling the generals liars or questioning their integrity, but simply acknowledging that they work at the behest and under the authority of the Commander in Chief. And that could limit what they feel they can say publicly.

The Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano, who has served in the Pentagon, defends Ryan’s comments:

Why is the brass signing off on this? Well, that’s their job. I know well how this works. I saw it first hand serving in the Pentagon. The Constitution establishes civilian supremacy over the military. The president is commander in chief. He defines strategic requirements, so the way he gets the military leaders to agree is simple: He just lowers the bar of expectations. He dumbs down the requirements.

So when Congress asks the brass, “Do you have enough?” They have no choice but to answer “yes.” It is like telling marathoner who has not had time to train that he only has to run a 5-K race. Sure, he’s ready—unless he actually has to run a marathon.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when the military rubber-stamps the president’s budget. Nor should we be surprised when Congress questions them. That is the job of the Congress.

That doesn’t mean Ryan didn’t make a mistake here. His comment was still poorly-worded, giving his opponents fodder to attack him and distract from the issue. He also put military leaders in an uncomfortable position, forcing them to defend their previous statements on budget cuts to the media. But his broader argument wasn’t necessarily inaccurate.

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