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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.

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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5 Responses to “The Problem with Obama and His Generals”

  1. MANUEL LAZEROV says:

    A “war weary nation”, consisting mostly people who have never served nor sacrificed, and where protecting the nation is not a burden that they would willingly wish to share. Really what they want is “something for nothing”, and bravado without commitment.

  2. KEEFE GOLDFISHER says:

    Mr. Lazerov’s comments above certainly sting in the right civic way; the duties of citizenship linger over every one of our recent interventions, fought by our volunteer forces, rather than all according to our ability.

    Is there a sense, Mr. Tobin, that when we have a President so disposed to not fight for victory, and to be so confused about the worth of enforcing a redline, and whether Iran should be in negotiations with us about building nuclear bombs at the same time we flirt with them about their part in stifling IS, and whether Turkey is a friend or a foe (pace NATO) to be relied on for its airbase or participation in the army of the willing… that maybe it’s better that our President’s words fall flat and lead to nothing in the short term? Isn’t there the tragic sense that he would mess it up worse, if he had any real momentum for his very bad ideas?

    If we really have to fight IS, then we will certainly have to fight Iran, and the Taliban, and Boko Haram, and Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas, and eventually the Saudis, and all the European appeasers of Islamism… any entity that is Islamist and sharia-enforcing, or its enabler.

    Until there is a President who recognizes every aspect of the Global Jihad, there is no way to fight IS in isolation just because the American people recognize the seriousness of the threat.

    Lincoln found the right generals because he had the right views about our nation, formed over time in much strife, so he knew what victory meant.

  3. MARC SALZBERGER says:

    Seth Mandel, in an earlier post seemed a little suspicious of the “war weary country” adage. But Tobin is here flourishing it trustingly.

    Is this country really war weary, or has it been told it is war weary so often by the president and the media that that is now received opinion?

    Can the loss of 4,500 men in Iraq across five years and 2,200 over 13 years in Afghanistan, make a country which yearly suffers over 40,000 highway deaths without a shrug, be war weary?

    Each one of those deaths is an earth shaking tragedy and horrible wounding of a family, but they do not significantly shake or weaken this country of 320 million.

    If they have enervated America it is an entirely artificial weakening deliberately inflicted and with no physical basis.

    Just a few years after the almost 400,000 lost in WWII America suffered 52,000 dead in Korea within two years. Of course that produced a yearning for peace, but that still did not cause talk about a war weary America. Moreover, the population back then was half of what it is today.

    This “war weary country” rhetoric is pure and cynical propaganda designed to frighten and enfeeble America. I am a great admirer of Jonathan Tobin, of his knowledge, fluency, productivity. It is discouraging to see him wiggling from that same hook.

    • MANUEL LAZEROV says:

      What is so remarkable is that no Muslim nation is willing to commit ground troops. The only conclusion that can be drawn from that is that their soldiers cannot be counted to participate in ground operations against ISIS because they probably sympathize with them. A Hell of a way to build a coalition!

  4. ROMAN SZEREMETA says:

    ” if the U.S. actually wants to win rather than merely manage the conflict”.
    The heart of the Cold War was the realization that victory was NOT an option! Sooo, the US adopted the “containment” strategy, which is very similar to Jonathon’s “merely managing the conflict”.
    Surprising that Obama has come up with this strategy given his distaste for “cold war” thinking!
    Given the complexity of the Syrian conflict this was always the logical strategy. However, it is not a passive strategy, proactivity is at its heart, something which Obama just doesn’t want to know about.
    Ironically, from a do-nothing policy we have moved to an overly ambitious activist “degrade the enemy” policy with both feet tied together and resting on an ottoman! – we are not going to put boots on the ground, the Arabs will do that for us!
    I note that Mark Shields, an admitted, baptised at birth Democrat, shook his head in disbelief at this strategy on PBS NewsHour. This policy is so transparently inept I am amazed that the GOP are supporting it!
    It all smacks of panic and wishful thinking.
    Obama failed to lock the stable door, the horse has bolted and he is now running around trying to borrow a lock from his neighbour when there was nothing wrong with the lock on the stable – he just didn’t want to use it!




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