It’s become so obvious that the Washington Post feels compelled to report it — “Rift widens between Obama, U.S. military over strategy to fight Islamic State,” says the Post headline. The main rift is over President Obama’s insistence that he will not use ground troops to fight the “Islamic State.”
As the Post notes, “Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took the rare step of publicly suggesting that a policy already set by the commander in chief could be reconsidered.” Dempsey’s stance, stunning though it is, represents only the tip of the iceberg:
Military leaders have increasingly suggested that Obama’s political promises are restricting their ability to fight. On Wednesday, former defense secretary Robert M. Gates, still an influential figure at the Pentagon, bluntly criticized his former boss.
“There will be boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of success in the strategy,” Gates said in an interview with CBS News, adding that “the president in effect traps himself” by repeating his mantra that he won’t send U.S. troops into combat.
Actually, the president isn’t trapping himself at all. He would rather have an unsuccessful air-based campaign than engage in a real war. Our military leaders understand this and that’s the main source of their frustration.
There are other sources. Obama announced that he intends to attack ISIS from the air in Syria, but no such attacks have occurred or seem to be in the works. The Post reports:
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel testified Wednesday that he and Dempsey had approved a plan to conduct strikes against the Islamic State in Syria, and that Obama had received a briefing from [General] Austin that same day at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa.
When asked if the president had endorsed the plan, however, Hagel acknowledged that Obama had not but did not elaborate.
Obama’s lack of urgency can’t be playing well at the Pentagon. By delaying, Obama gives ISIS the opportunity to move its military assets into less vulnerable places, such as heavily populated areas that Obama would probably be unwilling to strike.
As I wrote the night that Obama told the nation of his intention to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, there was an air of unreality about the alleged enterprise. That air of unreality has thickened in recent days. Is this going to be a serious, though limited campaign, or is it (as John says) just a device to get the Democrats through the November election?
Our military leaders (as well as others in the military who pay attention) must be asking themselves the same question. They have already seen the election-driven nature of Obama’s approach to Afghanistan and Iraq. Surely they worry (or realize) that Obama is demoting the defense of America from his sacred responsibility to a political problem he must manage.
If the campaign against ISIS fails to materialize to any appreciable degree or if it materializes but, in the absence of U.S. “boots on the ground,” does not succeed, our military leaders will not take the humiliation lying down. The fact that they are going on the record to such an unusual degree shows, I think, both their expectation of failure and their determination to hold Obama accountable for it.