In a sign of the impending apocalypse, I am sorry to see Chuck Hagel depart as Secretary of Defense, because what it says about the prospects for combat operations in the Middle East, and military matters generally. I have been harshly critical of the man as being completely overmatched by the demands of the job. Alas, he was too competent and too assertive for Obama.
The initial story put forth by the administration was that this was planned, something that had been under discussion for some time. Which is patently bologna, given that the administration had no one waiting in the wings to stop into Hagel’s position: a planned transition would be much smoother than this, where the leading candidates are at pains to make clear that they have no interest. (More on this below. Compare this mess to the process of Holder’s resignation and the quick naming of a successor.)
In fact, the real reasons for Hagel’s axing are plainly obvious. He had questioned the coherence of the administration strategy in Syria. He has made statements about the dangers posed by ISIS that patently contradicted Obama’s “JV” characterization and the president’s desired softly-softly approach in Iraq and Syria. He agreed with the uniformed military and imposed a quarantine on service personnel returning from Ebola-stricken reasons. Brought into to oversee substantial budget cuts, he began to support the Pentagon’s position that the military was becoming dangerously underfunded.
In other words, he showed some spine, and pushed back against Obama and his coterie in the White House and the NSC in particular.
I am also quite sure that there is a near insurrection under way at the Pentagon, due to deep differences over the conduct of the campaign against ISIS and funding of the military. Obama wants to reassert control over the building.
Obama has now blown through three SecDefs. Two of those-Gates and Panetta-have blasted Obama for his micromanagement exercised through the White House/NSC staff. Hagel was supposedly similarly frustrated.
And indeed, the very limited nature of the campaign in Iraq and Syria provides compelling evidence of that. No serious military person would carry out this campaign in this way. There are no ground troops to identify targets and call in air strikes. The number of sorties is laughably small, a small fraction of those mounted even during the relatively limited Serbian operation, let alone in Gulf Wars I and II. Hell, the shambolic Syrian air force is mounting more strikes than the US. (I have seen suggestions that the low number of strikes reflects the fact that the US military is overstretched. If this is true, the budgetary constraints have created a true crisis when a war ravaged Syrian military can operate at a more intense tempo.)
Obama has allegedly expressed frustration that the military has not come up with “creative solutions” to the challenges in Iraq and Syria. He has prevented them from implementing the techniques developed through long experience which have been deployed with great success ever since the campaigns in Europe in WWII, and which were perfected since the mid-1980s’ AirLand Battle concept was introduced. Apparently Obama cannot accept that military realities cannot be wished away to satisfy his personal opposition to the deployment of robust force, and particularly to the deployment of any combat personnel on the ground.
The miserly approach to the application of force in Iraq and Syria is epitomized by what is occurring in the crucial city of Ramadi. It is a strategic location in Anbar, and ISIS, which already controlled about half of it, has launched an attack to capture the rest. Its assault has reached the government center. The town is at serious risk of falling.
Any ISIS concentration provides the perfect opportunity to employ air power: this is what has happened at Kobani. But even though the US is only launching 20 or so strikes a day in theater, it can’t spare anything for Ramadi: it launched a single attack on a checkpoint on the outskirts of town while the center was under a serious assault. The embattled Iraqis are begging for air support, but it’s not forthcoming:
“The governorate building has been nearly cut off,” said a Baghdad security official in direct contact with the operations command for Anbar, the province where Ramadi lies. The official said that Islamic State forces had cut roads to the Iraqi Army’s 8th Division base to the west and the road to Habaniyya airbase to the east. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.
. . . .
Local security forces and tribesmen initially succeeded in resisting the Islamic State’s newest advance, but commanders on the ground say a lack of continuous air support and reinforcements has made it impossible to hold that territory.
Ahmed Mishan al Dulaimi, a Ramadi police lieutenant, said that coalition airstrikes had been critical to stopping the Islamic State’s initial assault but that the strikes had stopped. “We were told (the aircraft) were occupied” with other fronts.
“If the coalition doesn’t continue targeting the nests of Daash, everything that we’re doing now will just be in vain,” he said, using an Arabic term for the Islamic State.
For the want of a nail.
And now the Pentagon is leaderless. Ominously, the two leading candidates, Senator Jack Reed and former Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy have withdrawn their names from consideration.
And is there any wonder? It is plain that Obama is hostile to and suspicious of the Pentagon. It is equally plain that those sentiments are repaid with interest. Who wants to be in the middle of that?
Moreover, it is abundantly clear that even though his micromanagement has been widely criticized, and that the results of this micromanagement have been nearly catastrophic, Obama is intent on maintaining a tight control over military operations and the budget, exercised through such lightweights as Ben Rhodes and Susan Rice: there are more munchkins in the White House (and the NSC) than there were in Oz. Hagel’s firing shows that Obama will brook no dissent. Only a cipher would be willing to work under these conditions. It is a sobering thought that Hagel wasn’t enough of a cipher to satisfy Obama.
The decline in talent at the upper echelons in an aging, lame duck administration is inevitable: Obama’s management of the Pentagon makes that decline even more pronounced. To think that we will pine for the likes of Chuck Hagel. My God.
Obama clearly prefers micromanaging failure to delegating for success. But perhaps that’s not fair. Perhaps Obama believes that letting the military devise and implement a plan that would have a realistic chance of defeating ISIS will lead to other consequences that he considers worse than the current fiasco. I shudder at the thought.