Obama's Generals

President Obama likes to fancy himself a modern incarnation of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was a wartime president who famously struggled to find generals that shared his strategic vision of victory. Obama also seems to be in search of generals who share his strategic vision.  But where Lincoln sought fighting generals who wanted to win, Obama has tried to create a politically sensitive and strategically befuddled military.    

Obama’s impact on the Pentagon has been both social and operational. He pressed the military change policies on gay service members and women in combat, and now appears to be pushing to remove restrictions covering transgender people. To some extent these moves reflect public sentiment, and the bans on gays and females in combat were going to be lifted under any Democrat president. Still, the developments clearly reflect Obama’s worldview.

Other instances are even more problematic. The military followed Obama’s political lead on the Fort Hood shootings, calling them workplace violence instead of terrorism. And the Army appears to be delaying a politically sensitive decision on prosecuting Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who deserted his post in Afghanistan, was captured by the Taliban and then traded for Islamist terrorists. These decisions reflect Obama’s personal biases when it comes to recognizing and defining Islamist terrorism, the worthiness of the Afghan campaign, and the retention of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.  

On operational matters, the military brass is learning hard lessons from the administration that occasionally costs careers. Certainly some generals sacked during Obama’s tenure (for incompetence or misbehavior) deserved it. But others have seen their careers cut short by crossing the administration in one way or another, or as convenient fall guys for flawed policies.    

General Stanley McChrystal was relieved of command in Afghanistan for speaking loosely about his problems with the administration. General David Petraeus, who also had policy differences with Obama, was not only forced to resign as CIA chief for an ill-advised romantic dalliance, but was aggressively prosecuted by the Justice Department for trumped-up charges of mishandling classified material -- almost exactly what we now know Hillary Clinton did during her tenure as secretary of state on a vaster scale. Despite denials, General Carter Ham was relieved of the Africa Command as a fall guy for the Benghazi debacle. And most recently, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who worked for McChrystal in Afghanistan, was forced out as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency for disagreeing with the administration’s overly rosy assessments of the Islamist terror threat. 

Those mistaken assessments, along with Obama’s delusional Iran policy, are largely responsible for the current crises in the Middle East. An important question is whether the generals currently dealing with the situation are Obama’s men. If they are and if they go about blindly implementing this administration’s policies without legally acceptable pushback or principled resignations, Obama’s string of foreign-policy disasters promises to widen considerably, at great cost to America and our allies.     

Flynn’s replacement at DIA, Lieutenant General Vincent R. Stewart, a respected Marine, was something of a surprise selection.  Flynn’s deputy resigned with him, and his presumed successor, Air Force Lieutenant General Mary Legere did not get the nod. At Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, is well regarded and widely experienced. At the top is chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, who took that post in 2011.

Stewart, new to the job, might be expected to toe the administration’s line concerning ISIS and Iran, given the very public removal of his predecessor. But all three have here and there pushed back against the administration. In February Stewart bucked the White House by correctly labeling the Taliban terrorists. Dempsey notably demurred from the administration’s castigation of Israel for its summer Gaza campaign, praising the IDF for its strict adherence to the laws of war. Austin commanded U.S. forces in Iraq (2010-2011) only to have Obama reject his advice to maintain American forces there. Obama’s mistake led to the rise of ISIS. Austin nonetheless took over Central Command in 2013, and in September 2014 Obama again rejected Austin’s advice to include American special operations troops in the fight against ISIS. 

Despite Obama’s refusal to heed the best military advice, these men have stayed on, and the danger is that they may indeed become “Obama’s generals.”     

It is sad day when an often buffoonish media personality like Geraldo Rivera can offer a more strategically sound approach to the military crisis in the Levant than what is produced by our own professional generals. In several FOX News interviews, Rivera has called for a more aggressive American-led campaign against ISIS, utilizing tactical and strategic ideas that worked with great success in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Geraldo’s approach would also limit the role of Iranian-supported Shiite militias in the conflict, and Iranian influence as a whole.

Actually, it is unlikely that the generals disagree much with Geraldo professionally, but are being stymied by the president. What’s worrisome is that in recent testimony both Austin and Dempsey have defended administration policy and painted an optimistic picture of the anti-ISIS campaign, without much to show on the ground. Worse still, Dempsey seems to be endorsing increasing Iranian involvement in the ground campaign, a strategic disaster in the making, even while Austin recently called Iran a “malign influence.”

Dempsey, for his part, is on record from 2012 as considering Iran a “rational actor” including in the context of nuclear policy. In recent congressional testimony he was unfazed by heavy Iranian involvement in the Tikrit battle, noting that it could be a “positive influence.” Iran’s spreading military and diplomatic hegemony ought to disturb the general even more than ISIS, unless he has really gone over the deep end, and is buying into the dangerous fantasy that Iran can become a de facto American ally and force for stability in the area.  

AustIn recently defended administration policy before Congress accompanied by Undersecretary of Defense Christine Wormuth. In 2014 Senator John McCain tried to block Wormuth’s nomination, noting her views on Islamist terrorism were “naïve and nonsensical.” With Wormuth, Austin repeated a supposed ISIS casualty count of 8500 dead so far in the air campaign (courtesy presumably of the DIA.)  That estimate seems wildly optimistic by any historical standard, even assuming the exclusive use of smart bombs. Given the limited number of sorties flown, the casualty-rate per sortie would be unprecedented -- especially considering the number quoted is just enemy dead, not total casualties. Even assuming a remarkably fecund and efficient replacement pool, it would be amazing that a military force like ISIS could sustain such losses and remain intact. Yet ISIS not only remains intact, it has not lost appreciable territory and is conducting a tough and well organized defense of Tikrit against Iranian led Shia militias. 

Obama appears to be leading his generals down a strategic rabbit hole. They are in a difficult position to be sure, legally required to defer to civilian leadership, even when that leadership proves to be incompetent or worse. While they might not be cashiered or forced to resign like so many of their predecessors, in the judgment of history, they may come to regret that.