Engel: Military officials "apoplectic" over Obama's "no-strategy" comment

Well, golly, I can’t imagine why. What military force wouldn’t appreciate a little confidence-shattering announcement from its Commander in Chief in the face of a looming threat against the nation and its allies? AP included this clip from yesterday’s Meet the Press in his QOTD roundup last night, but it’s worth its own post:


NBC’s Richard Engel offered this money quote:

Engel also reported that military commanders are “apoplectic” over the president’s inaction in Syria: “I speak to military commanders, I speak to former officials, and they are apoplectic. They think that this is a clear and present danger. They think something needs to be done.”

“One official said that this was a Freudian slip,” Engel continued, referring to Obama’s admission last week that he does not have a strategy yet for Syria. “That it shows how the United States does not have a policy to deal with Syria, even when you have ISIS, which has effectively become a terrorist army, roughly 20,000 strong.”

That, however, deserves a little more context. The rise of ISIS has been no secret to the Pentagon or the White House — or anyone paying the least bit of attention, as Engel made clear:

“We reported about it. Reporters risked their lives going into Syria to talk about this buildup of extremists in the country, yet nothing seems to have been done. And now we have a very serious situation,” said Engel.

This is precisely why military commanders have become “apoplectic.” For the last couple of months, the White House has acted as though the metastasis of ISIS has come as a big surprise, but it hasn’t been for those whose eyes have not been purposefully shut to the danger. The collapse of the Iraqi military can’t have come as a total surprise, either; the Obama administration has made it clear for a long time that they have had serious concerns about the sectarian direction of the Nouri al-Maliki.


In other words, this was “entirely predictable,” as Engel says — and that suggests that Obama and his aides have deliberately ignored the problem. The Pentagon doesn’t have that luxury, though, and has to have made some proposals for strategies to deal with the threats. Defense Secretary called ISIS an “imminent threat” two weeks ago, for instance, and that much was obvious when the Iraqi army collapsed in the north a couple of months ago. The military presumably has developed a range of options for a strategy to take on ISIS, but need the White House to choose one. Telling the world from Martha’s Vineyard that Obama hasn’t figured out how to deal with ISIS must have had military planners at the Pentagon climbing the walls in frustration — or, as Engel put it, “apoplectic.”

For the moment, with the leadership vacuum at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the US military continues with its tactical plan for conducting air strikes at targets of opportunity. That has created some strange bedfellows:

With American bombs raining down from the sky, Shiite militia fighters aligned with Iran battled Sunni extremists over the weekend, punching through their defenses to break the weekslong siege of Amerli, a cluster of farming villages whose Shiite residents faced possible slaughter.

The fight in northern Iraq appeared to be the first time American warplanes and militias backed by Iran had worked with a common purpose on a battlefield against militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, even though the Obama administration said there was no direct coordination with the militias.

Should such military actions continue, they could signal a dramatic shift for the United States and Iran, which have long vied for control in Iraq. They could also align the interests of the Americans with their longtime sworn enemies in the Shiite militias, whose fighters killed many United States soldiers during the long occupation of Iraq.


And that would make it almost impossible to put Iraq back together again in the long run:

The latest expansion of American military operations reflects how seriously Iraq has deteriorated since the withdrawal of American forces in 2011. But any decision to support the Shiite militias, who have proven more adept than the American-trained Iraqi Army, would come with its own set of challenges.

The militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria were able to storm into Iraq in recent months in part because Sunnis felt so disenfranchised by the Shiite-led government of former Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. If the United States is seen to be strengthening the hand of militias that terrorized Sunnis during the sectarian war of 2006 and 2007, the minority Sunnis might balk at participating in America’s long-term goal of a unity government.

Or, in a worst-case scenario, more Sunnis could align with ISIS fighters.

In fact, the reason why the Sunni tribes threw in with ISIS was precisely because Maliki had locked them out of power in favor of the Shi’ite groups backed by Iran. Tactically, it makes sense to offer support to the Shi’ite militias to break ISIS’ siege on these towns, but strategically it will be disastrous. The Sunnis already feel betrayed by the American retreat in 2011, and now we’re back providing air support for their enemies. It’s difficult to see any way we could possibly make this situation worse than to enter into a de facto alliance with Iran; the Sunnis will permanently adhere to ISIS, and it might mean a recruiting bonanza for the Islamic State.


This is why we need a strategic plan, and not just tactical action, in dealing with ISIS — and why we should demand an international coalition that will sideline Iran from this conflict to the largest extent possible.


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