WASHINGTON – The Syrian crisis over the past few weeks has thrust President Barack Obama into a role in which at times he has seemed uneasy: that of commander in chief.
The prospect of an attack to punish Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons exposed the Nobel Peace laureate’s strained and somewhat tentative relationship with the U.S. military. Obama’s dramatic oscillation from detachment on Syria to the brink of military action, with him ultimately settling for a potential diplomatic solution, has unsettled many people in uniform.
Obama’s two former defense secretaries weighed in on the controversy Tuesday night, saying they disagreed with the president’s decision to seek congressional authorization for a strike. While Leon Panetta said a cruise missile attack would have been worthwhile, Robert Gates said the plan was akin to “throwing gasoline on an extremely complex fire in the Middle East.”
“To blow a bunch of stuff up over a couple of days to underscore or validate a point or principle is not a strategy,” Gates said at a forum in Dallas in which the two appeared.
The prospect of a new U.S. military intervention in the Middle East elicited grumbling from a war-weary generation of senior commanders and veterans who share similar reservations to those voiced by the former defense secretaries. Their reluctance was informed by lingering distrust over the administration’s handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have been wound down in ways that have left many in uniform feeling apprehensive, if not bitter.
But there was also trepidation about a White House that many career military officers say has monopolized decision-making in a tight circle dominated by civilians and that often deliberates endlessly, seemingly unwilling or unable to formulate decisive policies.
“The U.S. military feels it has been burnt with half-measures,” said Peter Munson, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who most recently served as a senior adviser to the corps’ commander. “There is going to be on the part of our senior military leaders an aversion to using force when you don’t have clear ends and escalation can take on a life of its own.”
The prospect of a U.S. strike has faded after the United States and Russia agreed on a plan to dismantle Syrian President Bashar Assad’s chemical arsenal. The Pentagon, though, said it was keeping four navy destroyers within striking distance, signaling that the White House wants to keep the option of force on the table.
After largely sitting on the sidelines during Syria’s civil war, which is well into its third year, the White House’s response to the alleged poison gas attack in the Damascus suburbs startled commanders.
“These last few weeks have raised serious doubts about their agonizing failure to reach a clear decision,” said Anthony Cordesman, a military strategy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former senior intelligence official at the Pentagon. “This basically was seen as the president’s worst moment.”
As the debate unfolded, an uncomfortable narrative for the White House began taking root: While Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were advocating a strike with zeal, senior military leaders had deep reservations. The divide was perhaps most noticeable during congressional hearings that featured an emphatic Kerry sitting alongside Gen. Martin Dempsey, the cerebral and soft-spoken chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Dempsey, Obama’s top military adviser, said he supported the president’s decision to carry out a “limited” strike but added caveats in the form of a lengthy and detailed accounting of the potential fallout.
Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, said in an interview that the president’s Syria policy was the product of a robust debate informed by nuanced and thorough input from the military. “I think there is a rhythm to the policymaking that contributes to an opportunity for the military leaders to give him their unvarnished and very candid advice,” McDonough said.
Obama’s relationship with the military was indelibly shaped early in his presidency by the 2009 debate over whether a troop surge in Afghanistan that his generals were pressing for stood a good chance of turning around the worsening conflict.
“From his perspective, he trusted the military and they betrayed him,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe a blunt assessment shared by many in defense and policymaking circles. The president felt boxed into a political corner by leaks about the troop numbers the generals wanted, the official said, and after that, “I think this White House made it pretty clear that they intended to run all foreign policy from the (Eisenhower) Executive Office Building.”
The administration’s inability to keep a residual U.S. military force in Iraq at the end of 2010 after a lengthy policy debate left some senior military officers feeling dejected. The Pentagon wanted to keep between 10,000 to 15,000 troops in Iraq after the drawdown.
“The White House was doing what they do best, which was scrutinizing every proposal, which was driving some of the planners on the Joint Staff crazy,” said the former military official. “The White House won that round. They got what they wanted, which was zero.”
Under Obama, the era of high-profile, outspoken generals who became de facto policymakers and politicians during the presidency of George W. Bush came to an abrupt halt. Charismatic and media-friendly generals learned to be circumspect. Senior officers known as quiet professionals got promoted.
As he reassessed how to best use and mold the military as an era of ground wars was coming to an end, Obama developed close, and in some instances warm, relationships with his military chiefs, according to McDonough, his chief of staff.
‘Their job is to give their best military advice, which they always do, without regard for politics,” he said. “The president appreciates that above all else.”
Obama has not been reluctant about using force, having signed off in 2011 on the risky raid in Pakistan that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. His counterterrorism policies have largely mirrored, and sometimes gone beyond, those of his Republican predecessor.
Veterans of the war in Afghanistan have become disappointed about how long it has taken the White House to articulate its long-term plan for the country, where the troop withdrawal is scheduled to finish at the end of 2014. T.M. Gibbons-Neff, a former Marine Corps sergeant who served two tours in Afghanistan, said many of his contemporaries have belatedly come to appreciate Bush’s decisiveness as commander in chief.
“Guys thought Bush had his stuff together,” said Gibbons-Neff, 25, the president of the veterans association at Georgetown University. “If he was making a good call or a bad call, he was at least making a call.”
Administration officials say Obama is proudest and most humbled when he is surrounded by troops. He has learned a great deal from them, McDonough said, including, perhaps most importantly, that “an attribute of a great leader is humility.”
The administration will be reviewing this month’s turbulent policy deliberations much like a commander would his decisions at the end of a battle, he said.
“The president has demanded of us as a regular matter something that he has seen from the military: a culture of after-action review, a culture of accountability and constant learning,” McDonough said.