What’s worth a shudder is thinking about what his successor might do. Obama has said that the fight against ISIS will extend beyond his own presidency. I will probably vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 (if just for the lack of anyone better), but it is worth noting that, during her tenure as Obama’s secretary of state, she sided with the generals in nearly every debate, including the one on escalation in Afghanistan. The only disagreement between them was over Libya: The generals didn’t much want to send in military forces, but she very much did. She has also criticized Obama in recent weeks over his decision not to send arms to the Syrian rebels in 2011, and she derided his cautiousness, saying, “ ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ ”—which Obama once pronounced as his prime directive in foreign policy—“is not an organizing principle.” She may be right, but it’s not a bad starting point and shouldn’t be laughed off by someone who, as a senator, voted to authorize George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
There’s one more cause for concern in Dempsey’s statement about sending in U.S. ground forces: It was a statement, not an offhand remark. That is, he read the line aloud as part of his written opening testimony. This was unusual. When a general wants to go a bit off script, the standard drill is to wait for a senator to ask a question that begins, “General, in your professional military judgment … ” (Sometimes, a general’s staff plants such a question ahead of time.) That way, if his political masters raise a stink afterward, the general can say that, under the circumstances, he was duty-bound to reply honestly. The most famous case of this was when Gen. Eric Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, was asked, shortly before the invasion of Iraq, how many troops would be needed to restore order afterward. He hemmed and hawed before saying “several hundred thousand”—angering his civilian bosses in the Pentagon, who had been assuring Congress of much lower numbers.