Obama’s Bad Relationship with the Military Is Hurting the Fight Against ISIS
Opinion

Obama’s Bad Relationship with the Military Is Hurting the Fight Against ISIS

© Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

It is high time we heard from our military commanders. Our men and women in uniform are being humiliated, but the Pentagon brass sits mute. The administration's inability to “degrade and destroy ISIS,” or even to “contain” the terror plague, as President Obama so inappropriately claimed just last Friday, is an embarrassment.

While inept guidance from Obama and his shrinking circle of confidants has caused headline-worthy failures in Syria, pushback from military commanders has been silenced by a distrustful White House that’s jealous of control and willing to penalize those who stray from the Oval Office narrative. President Obama told graduates of the Coast Guard Academy that denying climate change is a “dereliction of duty.” Isn’t blindly following the flawed and politically skewed directives of the White House also a dereliction of duty?

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The failure of our effort to arm compliant rebels in Syria -- $50 million spent to produce six soldiers -- has made our military a laughing stock, but is the tip of the iceberg. Continued half-measures in arming our allies or providing critical air support has hobbled our attack on a deadly foe. Recently, the White House announced it would send in dozens (but fewer than 50) advisors, as a renewed show of resolve – but vowed they would not engage in combat. Fifty soldiers! We’re not trying to button down Disneyland; there are an estimated 50,000 to 200,000 ISIS fighters in Syria, and they control about half the country.

The New York Times recently detailed efforts to disrupt Highway 47, ISIS’s critical supply route between Syria and Iraq’s Mosul. The U.S. has apparently been loath to bomb that essential artery for fear of civilian casualties. There have been 250,000 people killed in Syria. The U.S. is worried about truck drivers who may be willing to work for ISIS. Yesterday the U.S. launched airstrikes on hundreds of trucks conveying oil to market, destroying 116. But we made certain no civilians were hurt by dropping leaflets an hour before the strikes, alerting ISIS to the imminent bombings. Was ever a campaign so absurdly restrained?

Earlier this year, that caution ignited controversy, when an Air Force official told legislators that in the bombing effort in Syria and Iraq, “There’s a target of zero civilian casualties….” He explained further that even if there was only one civilian at risk, his pilots would withdraw, no matter how important the target. The upshot of that policy is that 75 percent of our combat missions return to base without dropping a single weapon.  

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Our military is being interfered with and directed by President Obama and a national security team that one retired general has described as “pathetically weak.” It includes Susan Rice, former human rights activist focused on Africa, and Valerie Jarrett, lawyer and former real estate developer. The Obama White House is remarkably devoid of ex-soldiers; that’s not an accident. The president’s contentious relationship with the military is well known.

Confronting President Obama is risky. Senior military commanders who have gone public with their disagreements can find themselves facing early retirement. Sir Hew Strachan, a senior defense strategist in the U.K., cites the ouster of General Stanley McCrystal as a case in point, saying “The concern about the military speaking out shows a lack of democratic and political maturity. We’re not facing the danger of a military coup.” Senator John McCain has accused the White House of pushing out both Marine General James Mattis from U.S. Central Command and Army Lt. General Michael Flynn from the DIA for having contradicted Obama’s policies.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey also broke with Obama numerous times, citing Russia as a major threat, for instance, and saying we might need boots on the ground to defeat ISIS. Dempsey retired in September. 

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has accused the Obama White House of “micromanaging” military operations -- actually calling field commanders with strategies and tactics, always with an unseemly political calculus. In discussing the war in Afghanistan, Gates recounts Biden and Obama issuing an “order,” which was “unnecessary and insulting, proof dispositive of the depth of the Obama White House’s distrust of the nation’s military leadership.” Leon Panetta, another former Secretary of Defense, has lodged similar complaints. No wonder Obama is on his fourth Secretary of Defense.  

Related: As Hawks Call for Aggressive Action, Obama Sticks to His Strategy for ISIS

It is entirely fitting that after the Paris attacks the White House chose Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communication to explain away President Obama’s assertion that ISIS had been “contained.” Rhodes has no background in intelligence or the military; he is a former speechwriter whose key credential is a graduate degree in creative writing.  

Creative writing, or at least creative interpretation, lies at the heart of a brewing scandal in which some 50 intelligence agents at Centcom, the Pentagon’s agency covering Central Asia and the Middle East, have charged military brass with altering reports to make it appear that the U.S. is winning the ongoing campaign against ISIS. Those leveling the charges have reportedly been encouraged to resign, and some have indeed left. The Daily Beast, which broke the story, quotes one whistleblower as describing the Centcom environment as "Stalinist." But what does this story say about our military leadership?

President Obama’s approval rating among men and women in uniform hit an all-time low of 15 percent last year. More broadly, morale in the military has been sinking. These trends are worrisome at a time when we will doubtless be asking more of our armed forces. The fight against ISIS will most likely ramp up in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. Americans may start to demand success. If it is not forthcoming, Pentagon leaders must be willing to take on the failed strategies of the White House and supply the leadership so obviously lacking in their Commander in Chief. 

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