The Disconnect between the President and His Generals

In the war against IS, a rift has already emerged between the President and the military leadership. The root of the rift is the question over the use of ground troops, something President Obama has explicitly ruled out. This isn’t the first time Obama and the military haven’t seen eye to eye nor is it unique to this presidency. What does make this unique at least to me is how public it is and that it isn’t one flag officer speaking out but many, both active and former. Ultimately the opposition from the military primarily centers on the president limiting their ability to effectively destroy IS.


The president is the Commander in Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces and has ultimate authority over the military followed by the Secretary of Defense. This isn't to say that our presidents are sitting in dimly lit map rooms moving pieces around on a map board crafting strategy. Though this has occurred in the past, typically the president will identify the mission and the military will sort it all out. Problems arise though when the president establishes a mission and then places sizable limits on the military in how they can proceed in accomplishing the goal. The case now is Obama's refusal to use ground troops in Iraq and at the least, allocate more for training and advisory missions.

The war against IS (even though Secretary of State Kerry won't call it a war) is to be fought with local forces on the ground while the U.S. and allies, so far France carry out supporting airstrikes. The problem rests in the fact that local forces, the Iraqi military, Kurdish Peshmerga, FSA Syrian rebels and other militia groups have either retreated from battle, joined IS forces, or lack the capability to effectively combat IS. Additionally, the U.S. places too much hope on the use of airpower as an all-dominating weapon that makes the use of ground forces unnecessary.

Airpower which is very effective when directed against a conventional military is of much less effectiveness when used at irregular fighters who for the most part drive around in civilian pickup trucks and blend into local populations. The use of airpower against such targets is even harder when there aren't the intelligence assets and forces on the ground to identify them, scout them, and ultimately target them with laser designators. For this campaign to be truly effective, the ruling out of ground forces either delays victory or puts it in doubt.

Some former military leaders have called the campaign against IS as being "half-hearted. Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey suggested publicly that ground troops might have to be used. In so much he claimed that conditions might dictate the need for ground troops; a complete reversal of Obama's policy. This is a far cry from Hagel who claims that there is no internal conflict in the administration and Pentagon. It can be said there is a political angle to Obama's determination not to deploy ground troops; he is the president who ended the Iraq War and it would be looked at negatively if he is to be seen starting another war. Regardless, the president is starting a new war or rather reentering something we took a break from and he seems unwilling to do everything in his power to win it.

This disconnect between Obama and the senior military staff is cause for concern. I've never been one to always trust what the military says. How many times in the post-Cold War era did senior leaders in the military advocate for weapon systems that would no longer be needed only to retire and then gain high-paying lobbying jobs at defense contractors. On the other hand, when I see so many leaders coming out against the president, I'm inclined to believe they are speaking the truth. Frankly I'm worried about a president who is engaging the U.S. in a conflict overseas in such a restricted manner. You either fight to win or you don't fight at all.

Posted by SPBrooker at September 24, 2014 7:41 PM
Comments
Comment #383751

If there has been one lesson lesson learned from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it is that the US troops cannot win a war in which the local populations do not support our efforts or the group(s) that we have partnered with.

That point is particularly important with ISIS, a Sunni extremist organization that evolved from al-Qaeda in Iraq. The area where they have been successful is the very same area that the US occupation forces found so difficult to control for the majority of our occupation (Sunni Triangle). The insurgency was largely a Sunni Baathist resistance. The success of the “Surge” was preceded by a political agreement with the Sunni tribes and former Baathists. The Maliki government squandered that peace with policies designed to suppress the Sunni populations.

If we were to put troops on the ground without addressing the political dynamics of Iraq and Syria, we would be playing into the hands of ISIS and sentencing us to another decade of bloody occupation. We could win the battles but never win the war. It is what ISIS wants.

Obama is correct in his analysis. The active support of the majority of Sunni Gulf states is welcome news. We are not going it alone in battle with Sunni extremists. Whether the new Iraqi government can get its act together with its Sunni population is another question.

Ultimately, we may need some troops on the ground. But, only after we have partners that have the political support of the population. The Kurds we know about. The rest?

The war in 2003 exposed and unleashed vicious underlying sectarian conflict. We can suppress it for a while but never eliminate it. Only the local and regional populations can resolve the issues.

Posted by: Rich at September 25, 2014 8:42 PM
Comment #383752

I might add, that Obama may eventually have to break his no boots on the ground promise in order to keep his higher order promise to protect the US from terrorist threats wherever they exist. If there is no effective local and regional actions against ISIS and it expands its control, then we may have no choice. War presents unappealing challenges. FDR campaigned on the promise that no American boy would fight in a European war. Well……

It is preferable that regional forces with US assistance take a lead ground role in this fight with ISIS. But, in the end, we may need to take the fight over. Get ready for a long occupation if that occurs.

Posted by: Rich at September 25, 2014 9:02 PM
Comment #383755

Rich,
It is possible for us to accomplish military goals with using ground troops. During the break-up of Yugoslavia, conservatives disagree with Clinton over how to handle the aggressive Serbs. Conservatives called for ground troops, and supposedly the military also thought they would be necessary. As usual, Senator McCain called for ‘boots on the ground.’ Clinton over-ruled them and relied solely on air power. It worked. We achieved our military and strategic goals without a single US casualty.

Air power may be able to degrade and destroy ISIS. If nothing else, they will be so crippled, the Assad regime will mop up and restore order.

Meanwhile, the Kurds will help us a great deal. Some very unpopular Sunni generals defected to ISIS, and all the Kurds need is the heavy weaponry.

The Turks are with us, Saudi Arabia & Bahrain & the UAE are conducting air strikes, and even Iran is quietly cooperating.

So proxies will take care of some of the problems. But it still leaves the big question unaddressed. Obama was right about this: there needs to be a political solution, and American ground troops can not provide that. Somehow, the Sunnis need to find a one they can accept. It may be a restored central Iraqi government with substantial autonomy. It may be an independent country with a new and improved Baathist government.

The Sunnis and much of the Iraqi military joined ISIS. Perhaps they can be convinced to reject them. But there has to be something better made available.

Posted by: phx8 at September 25, 2014 10:58 PM
Comment #383756

Correction: the first line should read ‘without using ground troops.’

Posted by: phx8 at September 25, 2014 11:00 PM
Comment #383759

“But it still leaves the big question unaddressed. Obama was right about this: there needs to be a political solution, and American ground troops can not provide that.”

phx8,

That is the real problem. We thought that we had defeated al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-2008 only to see it emerge in a more virulent and determined form in 2013-2014 due to oppression of the Sunnis by the Iraqi government.

The Sunni political question in Iraq and Syria is a difficult one to solve. But, any long term success is dependent upon a resolution. Our military actions need to be coordinated with a political strategy.

Posted by: Rich at September 26, 2014 12:00 AM
Comment #383760

If you think about it, virtually every realistic outcome is going to be bad, and all we can really do is choose the one that is the least worst. Tilt one way, and we strengthen the hand of Assad, Hezbollah, and the Iranians; tilt the other, and we strengthen either Sunni fundamentalists or Sunni Baathists. Arm the Kurds, and we risk the Kurds renewing civil war within Turkey, and possibly in Syria and Iran too. Place US troops in the middle of all that, and we become yet another faction in an ongoing war between four or more separate groups, losing American lives and treasure in a Forever War. ‘Arm the rebels,’ and next thing you know, we are launching air attacks on American tanks and artillery that fell into the wrong hands.

Going into Iraq in the first place was the biggest foreign policy blunder in American history. Now we have to deal with the consequences. Obama did not create this awful mess, but now he and all of us, really, have it on our plate. I wish Obama the best. He seems to be acting with careful deliberation and in concert with allies. I sure hope that is the case…

Posted by: phx8 at September 26, 2014 12:46 AM
Comment #383930

I hope there is always some disconnect between our president and our military’s generals. In fact, it is built into our Constitution that the military shall be subservient to civilian rule and oversight. No kings. No dictators. No might makes right, in public decision making. The ends shall not dictate our means. That is the ultimate difference between military decision making and civilian rule.

Once engaged in military conflict, military powers decision making is built upon the ends justifying the means. The decision to engage the military MUST NEVER be based on this kind of criteria, because the effects of military engagement are far reaching, well beyond the confines of the battlefield, and these effects must be weighed by others whose sole focus is not restricted to the battlefield.

Posted by: David R Remer at October 3, 2014 5:47 PM
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