The General Idea Again

The basics are pretty clear. We have a government of the people and by the people and for the people, where the military reports to an official elected by the people, the president. The military may have the guns, but the president is the commander-in-chief. The generals make suggestions. The president listens, but the president decides what to do. The president can also remove generals who don’t do what the president has decided should be done, and many presidents have done just that. Those are the rules we set up in the late eighteenth century in our Constitution. Over on Fox News, from time over the last six years, there has been talk of how the world wouldn’t be such a mess if the generals just took over all the decisions about who we fight, where, and why, and for how long, which often drifts into talk of how America would be better off if we just let the military run things here at home, but no one blurts out “Let’s have a military coup today!” They may think Obama is a fool, and that our military is magnificent beyond measure, but they know the rules. They don’t like those rules. There’s always been a bit of tension about this.

There was the curious case of General Stanley McChrystal – once in charge of things in Afghanistan, as Commander, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Commander, US Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A). On June 10, 2009, the Senate approved McChrystal to take command in Afghanistan, but it always seemed an odd choice. McChrystal’s career had been as a Special Forces guy – get in, get the bad guys, and get out before anyone knows what happened – the stuff no one talks about, or is denied. And of course those of us with long memories remember how McChrystal was implicated in the cover-up of Pat Tillman’s death by friendly fire – McChrystal seemed to be at the center of things. McChrystal was put in charge of the paperwork to award Tillman a posthumous Silver Star for valor, but McChrystal was one of eight officers recommended for discipline by a subsequent Pentagon investigation. They all knew the whole thing was a battlefield screw-up. The Army declined to take action against McChrystal – no point in keeping that controversy alive. And in Iraq, McChrystal’s unit, Task Force 6-26, had some issues with its interrogation methods, at Camp Nama, where it was accused of abusing detainees, sort of torturing them –some died before anyone figured out they knew nothing and were nobody in particular. After Abu Ghraib, when that sort of thing became an issue, thirty-four members of that task force were disciplined – McChrystal wasn’t. But he isn’t exactly a sweetheart. What was Obama thinking in appointing McChrystal to run things in Afghanistan?

But McChrystal had a reputation – beginning in late spring 2007 his teams launched a new series of covert operations that coincided with the famous Surge of 2007 – killing or capturing many of the key al-Qaida leaders in Iraq. In a CBS 60 Minutes interview Bob Woodward described this new special operations capability – joint teams of CIA and Army Special Forces. It was a new way of doing things. Several senior officials said that these joint efforts by what were essentially paramilitary units were the most significant contributor to the defeat of al-Qaida in Iraq – the guy was good – brutal and secretive, but good. And then David Petraeus converted him into a counterinsurgency guy – win the hearts and mind of the locals, keep the peace and get them to love their own government, and build a working society, and also drive the bad guys away and eliminate their key leaders. Obama must have figured the guy knew what he was doing, at least by now.

Then McChrystal started sending reports that we’d win it all over there if Obama would just send in more troops, lots and lots of troops, so Obama did, but McChrystal always said that wasn’t enough, and he seemed to develop an attitude. That was described in an impeccably-sourced Rolling Stone profile – all the mocking and sneering at Obama and Biden and every ambassador in sight, calling them all fools. What the hell did they know? What does any civilian know? No one tried to hide any of this from the Rolling Stone reporter, Michael Hastings, so the profile went online, and on June 23, 2010, two days before it hit the newsstands, McChrystal tendered his resignation.

Obama accepted it. McChrystal issued an apology and resigned from the Army, and everyone over at Fox News went ballistic. McChrystal was right about Obama and Biden and all the rest, wasn’t he? It wasn’t fair! All presidents should defer to the military, as everyone knows. As for Michael Hastings, he died in a mysterious car wreck in June 2013 just down the street here – his body burned beyond recognition. He was working on a story about the CIA at the time. That worried some people. This might be payback. Others grinned. He got what he deserved. No one knows what happened down on La Brea, even now, but back in 2010, Obama simply replaced McChrystal with David Petraeus, a discreet man who knows what the rules are. Obama later made Petraeus head of the CIA, where he was forced to resign over a sex scandal, a hot and heavy affair with a sexy journalist. His wife really was old and frumpy, but this was a surprise. Maybe Petraeus didn’t know what the rules were after all, but folks at Fox News were still unhappy. This time they were just sad. Petraeus blew it. They couldn’t pin this on Obama.

That was the problem. Obama was the one who had played by the rules. If a general says give me fifty thousand more troops and I’ll wipe out the bad guys – and some you didn’t even know were bad guys – the president can say no, that’s a policy decision, and your job is to implement policy. You might not like the policy in question, but that’s just too bad – you don’t get to decide such things. If you want to set policy, run for office. If enough people can be convinced to vote for you, because they think you should be the one deciding who we fight and how and when and why and where, then go for it. Otherwise, make your suggestions, argue for this or that, but be prepared to be disappointed now and then. You’re not the decider.

None of this ever settled, and here we go again:

Responding to a White House request for options to confront the Islamic State, Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said that his best military advice was to send a modest contingent of American troops, principally Special Operations forces, to advise and assist Iraqi army units in fighting the militants, according to two U.S. military officials. The recommendation, conveyed to the White House by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was cast aside in favor of options that did not involve U.S. ground forces in a front-line role, a step adamantly opposed by the White House. Instead, Obama had decided to send an additional 475 U.S. troops to assist Iraqi and ethnic Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment.

Obama made a geopolitical decision here, in tricky times, when our boots on the ground, even a very few of them, could make things far worse in the Middle East, given how we’re now seen over there. Those boots have to be carefully placed, and half of America would scream bloody murder if we started down that road to war. This is Obama’s call, but General McChrystal had started something:

Austin’s predecessor, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, said the decision not to send ground troops poses serious risks to the mission.

“The American people will once again see us in a war that doesn’t seem to be making progress,” Mattis said. “You’re giving the enemy the initiative for a longer period.”

Austin couldn’t say that – he’s active-duty and he knows better – but James Mattis can – he’s retired. It’s a tag-team thing, but Obama has his reasons:

Supporters of the president’s approach say that the use of U.S. ground troops could easily send the wrong message to Iraqi soldiers, encouraging them to hang back and allow the Americans to fight, and it might discourage Iraq’s new government from moving quickly in efforts win over Sunnis estranged by the previous prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. “We cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region,” Obama said.

That’s a policy decision. These two generals have good suggestions, but they’re not to the point, although Marc Thiessen doesn’t agree. He was one of George Bush’s speechwriters, after being a speech writer for Donald Rumsfeld, and he tells us this is just another example of Obama versus the Generals – another screed about how the generals are always right. Do what they say. You won’t be sorry. That worked just fine for his boss, George Bush. All you have to do is swallow your pride and admit you don’t know jack-shit about anything. Why can’t Obama be more like Bush? Listen to these guys.

Now the battle begins:

President Obama’s top military adviser said Tuesday that he would recommend deploying United States forces in ground operations against Islamic extremists in Iraq if airstrikes proved insufficient, opening the door to a riskier, more expansive American combat role than the president has publicly outlined.

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that while he was confident that an American-led coalition would defeat the Islamic State, he would not foreclose the possibility of asking Mr. Obama to send American troops to fight the militants on the ground – something Mr. Obama has ruled out.

“My view at this point is that this coalition is the appropriate way forward. I believe that will prove true,” General Dempsey said. “But if it fails to be true, and if there are threats to the United States, then I, of course, would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.”

General Dempsey acknowledged that this would run counter to the president’s policy, but he said, “He has told me as well to come back to him on a case-by-case basis.”

This is very odd, but we say every soldier is a hero, even the guy playing clarinet in the Army concert band in Italy, so maybe they’re always right and the president is always wrong, at least this one is. That’s been the argument for over six years on Fox News and from Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and from every actual Republican in office, or retired, or bored, but the White House wasn’t going to get into that discussion:

The White House insisted on Tuesday that Mr. Obama was not shifting his policy and that General Dempsey was not out of sync with his commander in chief.

“It’s the responsibility of the president’s military advisers to plan and consider all the wide range of contingencies,” the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, said to reporters. “It’s also the responsibility of the commander in chief to set out a clear policy.”

In short, Dempsey is allowed to say what he wants, and he should, and offer alternatives, lots of them, but that’s all they are. They will be considered, but Obama will get one thing he asked for:

Congress is moving quickly this week to approve President Obama’s plans to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels but also ensure that Capitol Hill is kept informed of plans to recruit, vet and train those forces.

Under plans formulated in recent days by House Republicans, Congress would authorize the Pentagon to begin operations to counter the rise of the Islamic State terror group in the coming days, and likely set up time for a more robust debate on broader military action in Iraq and Syria later this fall after the midterm elections.

The process is expected to begin with the House voting to grant Obama the authority to begin training Syrian rebels and Iraqi military forces as part of an amendment to a larger measure that funds federal agencies and is expected to pass after debate on Tuesday and Wednesday, aides said. Once the House votes, the Senate would take up the issue by next week before adjourning for the elections.

That’s going to sail through. It’s an easy sell. Others die in combat, those mysterious moderate rebels fighting Assad, not our folks, but they might be hard to find:

On August 19, the Syrian Support Group, which had previously arranged a few shipments of nonlethal aid to the Free Syrian Army, sent a letter to donors explaining why the group was shutting its doors. “Over the last year, the political winds have changed,” the letter read. “The rise of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra [an Al Qaeda-affiliated opposition force in Syria] and the internal divisions among rebel forces on the ground have complicated our efforts to provide direct support.”

The letter noted that “more significant support” was heading to the FSA from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United States, and other governments. But rivalries and rifts within the opposition had impeded the overall effort. “It was difficult to keep things going with the changes in the FSA and its Supreme Military Council and the advent of ISIS,” says Majd Abbar, who was a member of the Syrian Support Group’s board of directors. “It made our operations extremely difficult.”

They may have disbanded before we can find five thousand to train, and there’s this:

Syrian rebels and jihadists from the Islamic State have agreed a non-aggression pact for the first time in a suburb of the capital Damascus, a monitoring group said on Friday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the ceasefire deal was agreed between IS and moderate and Islamist rebels in Hajar al-Aswad, south of the capital. Under the deal, “the two parties will respect a truce until a final solution is found and they promise not to attack each other because they consider the principal enemy to be the Nussayri regime.”

Nussayri is a pejorative term for the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs.

Well, that makes things a little awkward, and Ed Kilgore adds this:

Perhaps this was all anticipated by the Obama administration and others – indeed, it does help explain the apparent desire of John McCain and Lindsay Graham to go to war with the entire region. But it doesn’t speak well for the idea that anyone who encounters ISIS understands immediately the organization must be destroyed at any cost lest or the world will come to an abrupt end.

The conservative blogger Allahpundit then adds this:

If ISIS’ grip begins to loosen in Sunni areas of Syria as the U.S. pounds them from the air, what are “moderates” more likely to do? Join with their hated enemy, the Shiite Assad, in stamping out ISIS, at which point Assad might turn around and attack the ” moderates” – or join with ISIS and fend off Assad in the name of keeping Iran’s Shiite death squads from cleansing those Sunni areas? Arguably, the more effective we are in damaging ISIS, the greater the risk that our “moderate” partner will turn on us and join the battle against the de facto US Assad alliance.

The generals, who are always right, didn’t think of that. Send troops. That’ll fix things. How? Andrew Sullivan suggests this:

A clear-eyed assessment of the actual situation does not lead many to believe that ISIS was about to take over all of Iraq. If it were, do you think Turkey would be hanging back? In fact, its capture of Mosul may well have been its high watermark -unless Americanizing the war gives ISIS a new lease on life.

We wanted something else over there, and stage-managed the exit of Maliki, demanding certain things to get it done:

The condition was a unified, multi-sectarian government in Iraq – which was the point of the “surge” as well. It never happened under the surge – which is why it failed; and it hasn’t happened even as these loons have come close to Baghdad.

Today, the Iraqi parliament could not confirm the new prime minister’s nominations for the defense and interior ministries – the two that really count, and the two that are still a function of Iraq’s permanent sectarian divides. So as the US president commits this country to war in defense of “Iraq” the same “Iraq” is so divided it cannot form the government that Obama explicitly said was a prerequisite. Which means it was not a prerequisite. It was more bullshit for an open-ended war with no Plan B that had already been decided upon.

To me, that does not seem something that we elected Obama to do.

Actually, General Dempsey has a Plan B for when this all falls apart, as it must – send in the troops and do something or other, and John Boehner is with him:

“I just think that if our goal here is to destroy ISIL, we’ve got to do more than train a few folks in Syria and train a few folks in Iraq and drop some bombs,” Boehner told reporters Tuesday morning in the Capitol. “I just don’t know that it’s enough to achieve the objective the president announced.”

Sullivan:

Neither John Boehner nor the neocons at the Washington Post actually call for ground troops – Obama has allowed them to cavil and complain from the sidelines, without getting them to vote for a new war – but you can see the general drift. The Beltway never truly believed it had screwed up in Iraq – bloviators like McCain actually believe the Iraq war was a success – and so the notion that a new Iraq War would be obviously a terrible thing does not truly occur to them. This is the price we pay for there being no accountability in Washington – the very war criminals and ideologues that gave us that catastrophe now want to repeat the entire thing, by fanning the flames of panic and hysteria.

Sullivan then cites Steven Cook with this:

Last Wednesday’s speech, which was clearly intended to alter the perception of helpless incompetence, merely reiterated the ad hoc approach to Iraq that his administration has pursued since early June. There may be good reasons to go to war against ISIS, but no one has actually articulated them. Are we protecting Erbil and American personnel? Undertaking a humanitarian mission? Fighting evil? Helping the Free Syrian Army? Assisting Washington’s regional allies against the ISIS threat? No one knows, but we are nevertheless turning the aircraft carriers into the wind. This is no way to go to war.

The disheartening aspect of this episode is that the White House’s instincts were initially correct: Foley’s beheading, that of Steven Sotloff, and most recently the murder of David Haines may be horrible, but they are not very good reasons to commit the United States to the conflict in Iraq and inevitably, Syria – two countries that are likely to be at war with themselves for decades. That may be unavoidable, but before the United States leaps in, policymakers should actually develop a strategy. In other words, identify realistic national goals and determine what resources are necessary to achieve those aims.

You know, do your damned job. And don’t defer to the generals, no matter what the perpetually outraged folks on Fox News are saying. Set a useful policy, no matter how subtle and complex, and the generals will fall in line. That’s their job, isn’t it? If they don’t get it, let them go. Lincoln fired General George B. McClellan – for getting everything all wrong. Harry Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur of command – for mouthing off about how Truman’s policies were all stupid, and how he had better ideas. Obama dismissed Stanley McChrystal. It’s been done. Perhaps General Dempsey should keep his suggestions for Obama private, and not scare us all into thinking it is war in Iraq again, and then moving on into Syria. That’s not his call. Those who wish it were are imagining a different country.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to The General Idea Again

  1. Rick says:

    It seems to me that the Senate may be treading on dangerous “separation of powers” ground whenever it calls in the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to grill him on policy. After all, doesn’t the chairman report to the Commander in Chief, who is in the Executive Branch?

    But I suppose it’s okay, as long as the chairman knows what not to talk about, and I think General Dempsey was not telling tales out of school when he said he thinks Obama’s present plans will work, but that if they don’t, he’d go back to the president with a different recommendation.

    This question of who’s the boss, the president or his “military advisors”, especially in wartime (which is to say, all the time, since, doesn’t it always seem to be wartime?) goes way back to even before George “I’m the Decider” Bush, whose idea of “deciding” military questions was mostly to let his generals decide, as if this were a banana republic. It never seemed to occur to him that, in the president’s constitutionally-designated role of Commander in Chief, it was his job to tell the generals what to do, and not the other way around.

    John McCain got into this with CNN’s new hire, Jay Carney, ex-press secretary for President Obama, during the post-game show after Obama’s speech last week. McCain faulted Carney’s old boss for not arming the resistance in Syria:

    “Facts are stubborn things, Mr. Carney, and that is, his entire national security team, including his secretary of state, said we want to arm and train and equip these people, and he made the unilateral decision to turn them down. And the fact that they didn’t leave a residual force in Iraq, overruling all of his military advisors, is the reason why we’re facing ISIS today.”

    Obama made a “unilateral” decision to “turn them down”? You mean the president, in spite of his understanding of the mess that arming the Syrian resistance back then would get us into, didn’t let his subordinates decide this for him? And he “overruled” his “military advisors”? The nerve of the guy!

    Carney replied that leaving a troop presence in Iraq “in perpetuity” was not in the cards, since the Iraqi government didn’t want us there, and that the Bush administration had signed off on the withdrawal plan, and that the voters elected the president on his promise to get us out, to which McCain came back with…

    “You know, Mr. Carney, you are again saying facts that are patently false. The fact is, because Lindsey Graham and I and Joe Lieberman were in Baghdad, they wanted a residual force. The president has never made a statement, during that or after, that he wanted a residual force left behind. The Iraqis were ready to go.”

    It may not help us that Wynken and Blynken and Nod all knew that the Iraqis were “ready to go”, since the Iraqi leadership at the time didn’t seem to be aware of it — or at least not if the agreement included protection for our troops from Iraq’s shaky justice system, something the Iraqis had said was a non-starter and something the president’s “military advisers” (remember them?) had said was an absolute necessity. (Scroll down in that same link to see what the Pentagon thought about that.)

    Carney then answered Anderson Cooper’s question of whether a residual force back then would have made a difference today — essentially saying no, since there was even chaos when we had many, many thousands of troops there.

    McCain:

    “Again, Mr. Carney misstates the facts. We had it won, thanks to the surge. It was won. The victory was there.”

    Show of hands: How many people here think “We had it won, thanks to the surge”? (So now who’s misstating the facts.) This honker of a disconnect may be what leads Andrew Sullivan to see this as the real root of our problems today:

    “The Beltway never truly believed it had screwed up in Iraq – bloviators like McCain actually believe the Iraq war was a success – and so the notion that a new Iraq War would be obviously a terrible thing does not truly occur to them.”

    And considering what McCain believes are “facts”, it’s just another reminder that America dodged a bullet when it denied him the chance to turn his imagination into reality.

    But when it comes to differentiating the roles of the Commander in Chief and the military professionals who work for him, it’s worth remembering that, sometimes, presidents could probably out-general the generals. You mentioned George McClellan: Because he spent so much time putting his troops through marching drills, instead of sending them into battle, an exasperated Lincoln once sarcastically commented, “If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time.” He should have; the war might have ended a lot sooner. Instead, he replaced him with a series of other disappointing commanding generals, including the Pennsylvanian George Meade, who won the battle of Gettysburg but failed to pursue Lee afterwards, until, years too late, he settled on Grant, the one who finally got the job done. But up until the end, the president might have done better by just doing it himself.

    The fact is, a policy of “no boots on the ground”, for example, is not a military decision — one that a general might make, since his job is figuring out military strategies of a war that an army might fight — it’s a political judgement call, one that you’d expect from a president, whose job it is to decide whether or not (and if so, under what conditions) the nation will even fight the war in the first place. If most Americans favor fighting a war, but not if it means sending troops, sending troops is probably not going to happen — which is something a president is likely to know, while a general (and, apparently, John McCain) might not, since it’s above their pay grade.

    After all, this is why our Army, which was not elected, takes its orders from our civilian Commander in Chief, who was.

    Rick

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