How to lose a war before it begins

The inescapable impression that the administration is at war with itself over Obama’s strategy to combat ISIS in Iraq and Syria has grown difficult to ignore and impossible to paper over.


The most recent example of this phenomenon came when President Barack Obama decided to devote a significant portion of a speech at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida on Wednesday to repeating his assurances that American troops returning to the Middle East would not “have a combat mission.” His insistence came just one day after Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told members of the Senate that he would not hesitate to recommend sending American ground forces to the front against ISIS in a “combat advisory role” should the situation merit it.

Obama has made a habit of walking back claims that his advisors make regarding the administration’s strategy to defeat ISIS. One day, a military official or Cabinet member warns the public that what America is facing in Iraq and Syria is a real war. The next day, the president insists the situation is nowhere near that dire.

The Washington Post revealed that the conversations behind the scenes are far more tense, and that Obama’s commitment to ensuring that American forces are not again asked to execute combat missions in the Middle East has strained his relationships with high-ranking commanders.

Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, who served under Obama until last year, became the latest high-profile skeptic on Thursday, telling the House Intelligence Committee that a blanket prohibition on ground combat was tying the military’s hands. “Half-hearted or tentative efforts, or airstrikes alone, can backfire on us and actually strengthen our foes’ credibility,” he said. “We may not wish to reassure our enemies in advance that they will not see American boots on the ground.”

Mattis’s comments came two days after Army 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.

Despite Obama’s promise that he would not deploy ground combat forces, Dempsey made clear that he didn’t want to rule out the possibility, if only to deploy small teams in limited circumstances. He also acknowledged that Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the commander for the Middle East, had already recommended doing so in the case of at least one battle in Iraq but was overruled.


This report, along with former Defense Sec. Robert Gates’ insistence that Obama’s current strategy to defeat ISIS is hopeless, led White House Press Sec. Josh Earnest to insist that he and other voices urging more engagement in Iraq should be dismissed because they had embraced the last war in Iraq. If this sounds like an unconvincing argument, you clearly do not work in the White House.

Obama’s allies have begun to mount a counteroffensive in the press. The latest to back Obama’s approach to the ISIS threat is former Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen who told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday that the public should not believe their eyes or ears. He said that the supposed rift between the president and his commanders is being “blown way out of proportion.”

“There should not be any question in the end who decides this, and that’s the president,” Mullen said, calling it a “natural part of the discussion” for military commanders to float options that the commander-in-chief either accepts or rejects.

“I think what General Dempsey was trying to do was certainly to explain to some degree how the process works,” the former Join Chiefs chairman said. “I think it’s been blown way out of proportion in terms of the disagreement between the military and the president.”


The public is more likely to back Obama over his generals; Americans are broadly supportive of the foundational belief that civilian control of the military is crucial to the health of the republic, and most Americans do not want to see US troops recommitted to a fight in the Middle East. However, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey from last week revealed that seven in 10 Americans have no faith that Obama’s strategy to “degrade and defeat” ISIS will work. They, like Obama’s generals, are skeptical that “indigenous” forces in Iraq and Syria are competent and trustworthy partners.

The public and the president believe ISIS represents a threat to global stability and national security. They believe military action is justified, but they want a war on the cheap – no American casualties and limited international involvement. That’s not a surprise; the public always wants a clean war. There is no such thing. It is not unreasonable, however, for the public to expect Obama to deliver a quick war.

The way to address this threat than is to use disproportionate, overwhelming force to neutralize the enemy and leave the nation building to those “indigenous” partners. Obama has done the opposite. He has determined to embark on a strategy to combat ISIS which will, by his own admission, outlast his presidency. The strategy of vetting, equipping, and training Syrian rebel groups in third party nations will not even begin to bear fruit for another ear. Political actors in Washington are already betting on the fact that this war will be an unpopular one before 2016 and, judging from the polling trajectory that long wars usually follow, that’s a safe bet.


The course the president has committed the nation to following will be a dangerous one. As this conflict drags on for months with coalition partners enjoying only limited successes, Americans will soon tire of it. Presuming ISIS is unable to export terrorism to the West, the American public is likely to want to see this war over long before the mission objectives have been achieved. That’s a recipe for disaster for Iraq and Syria and, eventually, the world.

Obama’s domestic political considerations are leading him to make calls that his generals are uncomfortable with. They would be serving their boss well by keeping quiet, but Obama will only be the boss for another 28 months. Their duty to posterity is far weightier, and it is understandable – even commendable — that U.S. military brass would want to put all the pressure on Obama that they can to get this war right.

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