WSJ: Obama will require military to get his personal approval for U.S. strikes in Syria

A man who’s a better speechwriter than his speechwriters, a better political director than his political directors, and who knows more about policy than his policy advisors must surely also be a better general than his generals, no?

The U.S. military campaign against Islamist militants in Syria is being designed to allow President Barack Obama to exert a high degree of personal control, going so far as to require that the military obtain presidential signoff for strikes in Syrian territory, officials said.

The requirements for strikes in Syria against the extremist group Islamic State will be far more stringent than those targeting it in Iraq, at least at first. U.S. officials say it is an attempt to limit the threat the U.S. could be dragged more deeply into the Syrian civil war…

Throughout President Obama’s time in office, the White House has kept close control of counterterrorism targeting, reserving the right to sign off on strikes against al Qaeda and other militant targets in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere.

Defense officials said that the strikes in Syria are more likely to look like a targeted counterterrorism campaign than a classic military campaign, in which a combatant commander picks targets within the parameters set by the commander in chief.

So we’re back to the ol’ war/counterterrorism distinction. In “war,” the military has great discretion in deciding whom to target; in counterterrorism, the president has a “kill list” and personally gives thumbs up or thumbs down. Maybe this is how O reassures himself that we’re not joining the war in Syria: If we’re following counterterrorism protocols, then this must be a counterterror operation, right? Or maybe, given the kaleidoscope of groups on the ground right now in Syria — ISIS, the Al Qaeda-allied Nusra Front, various other Sunni Islamists, Assad’s troops, the IRGC, Hezbollah, and of course the “moderates” — Obama wants to take extra precautions to make sure we don’t end up bombing someone who’s supposed to be nominally on our side. Pretty much no one on the Hill, Democrats included, thinks we’re going to find and vet 5,000 reliable Sunni partners in the midst of all this. If we can’t tell who the good guys and bad guys are from the ground, imagine how hard it is from the air.

There’s a third possibility: Maybe Obama just doesn’t trust his generals to fight the war by half-measures, as he himself prefers for political reasons. Martin Dempsey blew America’s mind a few days ago by suggesting that some number of U.S. ground troops may need to enter the fray sooner or later; Iraq skeptic Anthony Zinni has been calling for ground troops for the past several weeks. A poll of “security insiders” by National Journal reveals 63 percent think Obama’s ISIS strategy will fail, with many saying that it simply doesn’t go far enough to counter the threat. And a national poll of the public by Pew found that as many Americans fear that O’s strategy will do too little to stop ISIS than that it’ll too much to drag the U.S. into another long conflict. All of which is to say that a lot of people, experts and non-experts alike, worry that Obama’s planning to half-ass operations in Iraq and Syria to spare Democrats from accusations that they’re getting sucked into another “quagmire.” Could be that O fears that if he gives his generals a wide berth, they’ll seize the opportunity to hit Syria more broadly than he’d like and suddenly he’ll be getting pummeled with the quagmire narrative anyway. Hard to see how that would happen with an air campaign, but any sort of mission creep (e.g., if the Pentagon starts targeting non-ISIS jihadis or even some Assad anti-aircraft units) might invite it.

Or, I suppose, there’s a fourth possibility — that’s there’s so much western covert action happening inside Syria right now by U.S. and UK forces that O wants to take special care that the Pentagon’s air ops don’t end up inadvertently hitting any of them. A man can dream, can’t he?

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