Streetwise Professor

August 25, 2014

A Temperamentally Unfit Commander in Chief

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 7:25 pm

A year ago I wrote this:

Although I could, on a very narrow margin, rationalize using force aggressively against Assad to achieve strategic and humanitarian objectives, I cannot abide any military operation in Syria undertaken by this administration.  Its painfully obvious lack of any strategic sense and utter incomprehension of the way that people like Assad and the mullahs think means that any military action that this administration devises will be entirely counterproductive.

I am by nature a pugnacious person. (Who knew?) It takes quite something to turn me into a pacifist.  But Obama has turned the trick.  Quite an achievement.

The need for military action against ISIS is compelling, but I still have grave reservations about any military operations under this commander in chief. In my opinion, he is unsuited for command by his ideology, his lack of any grounding in military or strategic subjects, but most importantly, his temperament.

He is ideologically opposed to the use of force, for any strategic purpose, anyways. He is somewhat comfortable with limited, but strategically barren, military operations such as drone strikes and one-off commando raids.

But the temperament is the problem. He is incredibly risk averse. It was widely reported that he scrubbed the Obama mission three times, on advice from the shadow president, Valerie Jarrett. Now comes news that he waffled on the Foley rescue mission for thirty full days. Thirty days. A month. A moon.

For President Barack Obama the decision to send in the Night Stalkers was an agonising one. The audacious bin Laden raid in Pakistan had been a success but also preying on his mind was the failed 1980 Delta Force operation to rescue American hostages in Tehran.

Sandstorms and mechanical troubles led the mission to be abandoned and eight American troops were killed when two aircraft collided. The debacle cast a shadow over Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

Pentagon sources said Foley and the others might well have been rescued but Obama, concerned about the ramifications of US troops being killed or captured in Syria, took too long to authorise the mission.

Anthony Shaffer, a former lieutenant-colonel in US military intelligence who worked on covert operations, said: “I’m told it was almost a 30-day delay from when they said they wanted to go to when he finally gave the green light. They were ready to go in June to grab the guy [Foley] and they weren’t permitted.”

Another US defence source said: “The White House constantly goes back and forth on these things. These people are a bunch of academics who endlessly analyse stuff and ordering up another deep-thinking paper but can’t decide what to order for lunch.”

Touche re the academics jibe.

Military operations are inherently risky. Things go wrong. But nothing risked, nothing gained.

No doubt Obama was also wanting better intelligence. Who doesn’t? But someone who is fit for command realizes that intelligence will never be perfect, and waiting for perfect intelligence will often result in the loss of an opportunity. Which was evidently the case here.

So Obama chose the worst option. He could have taken the risk when the intelligence was fresh, and when there was therefore a decent chance of succeeding in snatching Foley away from the head choppers. But he waited, thereby increasing the odds that ISIS would get wise to the operation, or move Foley as an ordinary operational precaution; the risks were as great, and likely greater, as a result of the wait. So by playing General Hamlet, but eventually saying “Go” he reduced the odds of success, without reducing and likely increasing the risks.

Someone fit for command must evaluate risks, but cannot take counsel of his fears, let alone become consumed like them as Obama quite clearly is predisposed to do.

Put differently, Obama says that his foreign policy credo is “don’t do stupid shit.” Sometimes not doing something is the stupidest shit of all.

Here’s an interesting lesson learned by someone who learned that war involves risks, but a commander cannot be paralyzed by them:

From the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant –

…I received orders to move against Colonel Thomas Harris, who was said to be encamped at the little town of Florida, some twenty-five miles south of where we then were.

…Harris had been encamped in a creek bottom for the sake of being near water. The hills on either side of the creek extend to a considerable height, possibly more than a hundred feet. As we approached the brow of the hill from which it was expected we could see Harris’ camp, and possibly find his men ready formed to meet us, my heart kept getting higher and higher until it felt to me as though it was in my throat. I would have given anything then to have been back in Illinois, but I had not the moral courage to halt and consider what to do; I kept right on. When we reached a point from which the valley below was in full view I halted. The place where Harris had been encamped a few days before was visible, but the troops were gone. My heart resumed its place. It occurred to me at once that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him. This was a view of the question I had never taken before; but it was one I never forgot afterwards. From that event to the close of the war, I never experienced trepidation upon confronting an enemy, though I always felt more or less anxiety. I never forgot that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his. The lesson was valuable.

A man with Obama’s extremely risk averse temperament is extremely ill-suited to be commander-in-chief. This is extremely distressing, as the threat of ISIS requires a robust, sustained, strategically sensible response. All the leaks, as well as the public statements from the Pentagon, indicate that the military is rather frantic to act. But Obama continues to equivocate. He will continue to do so, because of his character and his ideology.

The administration is less focused on the mission than the messaging.

The White House is struggling to deliver a clear message on the threat posed by radical Islamist group ISIS and what the administration might do to counteract it.

Here’s a thought. Get a f*cking strategy, and the message will be self-evident.

But it gets better! And by better, I mean worse, of course. So desperate is it to downplay the risk of ISIS, it just makes stuff up:

The U.S. government has no evidence of a current plot by fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS, to attack the U.S. homeland, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday.

Not to go all Rumsfeld on you (and believe me, I have deeply personal reasons not to do anything that would give credit to the man), but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. We don’t know what we don’t know. Given ISIS’s capabilities (“a plane ticket  away from the US” and a large roster of individuals with European and likely US passports) and obviously malign intent, the prudent thing to do is to take precautions, and certainly not say stupid things (or would that be stupid shit?) like “there currently is not an active plot underway.”

You’d think that after the “ISIS is the JV” fiasco they’d know better. You’d think wrong.

Obama and his toadies are obsessed with the message and the next news cycle, rather than operational and intelligence imperatives, and designing and implementing an effective strategy.

Talk about cognitive dissonance. I am convinced of the need for military action, but totally distrustful of the competence of the man to carry it out. Very difficult choice. In the end, I guess I have confidence in the ability of the armed military to overcome the grave handicaps imposed by an intellectually, temperamentally, and ideologically unsuitable commander in chief. The strategic threat is great enough that doing something far less effective than would be possible under different leadership is better than doing nothing at all.

How depressing is that?

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  1. ISIS is not JV but sometimes I wonder if all these reports about the atrocities and such are not ‘sexed up’ so to speak. Just to distract our attention from the real problem – Russia.

    Comment by LL — August 25, 2014 @ 8:55 pm

  2. ISIS is not JV but sometimes I wonder if all these reports about the atrocities and such are not ‘sexed up’ so to speak.

    Some of the photos circulating the internet are horrific. Toddlers with heads lopped off, heads on spikes, crucifixions, and women having their throats slit, that sort of thing. The scale might be exaggerated (I don’t know), but the acts are not.

    Comment by Tim Newman — August 26, 2014 @ 3:28 am

  3. For a long time now, I have judged that Obama makes most foreign policy decisions based on immediate domestic political consequences. He does whatever he thinks will end any current criticism or give him immediate political gain. He’s been able to kick the can down the road a long time now with a willing media. However, the media is no longer willing to cooperate, and he’s coming under sustained criticism.

    Obama is at a situation where he will be criticized no matter what he does, so he doesn’t know what to do. If he had a plan with a coherent goal and strategy, he could make a decision and hope in time people will understand it was the correct one. But he doesn’t for the reasons SWP indicated. So he’s face with a situation where he will be criticized regardless, and his decision making methodology has completely broken down.

    Comment by Chris — August 26, 2014 @ 10:47 am

  4. I can’t wait to see how history judges President Obama. I’m guessing somewhere between Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan.

    Heck, if the 2014 election goes bad enough, we’ll start seeing lots and lots of bad stories come out immediately as the rats start fleeing the sinking ship (something we’re already seeing to an extent with former Secretary Clinton).

    Comment by Blackshoe — August 26, 2014 @ 12:21 pm

  5. SWP:

    What scares Vlad most is the current 30% who STILL SUPPORT this president.



    Comment by Vlad — August 26, 2014 @ 2:10 pm

  6. @Blackshoe. THose comparisons seem apt. Unfortunately, Obama was re-elected, and both those guys were one-termers. The effects of Obama may be as baleful as those of Buchanan. The main difference being that Obama does damage on a global scale, whereas Buchanan only really inflicted harm on the US.

    I anticipate that the leaks will indeed accelerate, especially if 2014 is an electoral repudiation of Obama. This is one reason why he is so focused on that election.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 26, 2014 @ 5:13 pm

  7. @Chris-In large part because he has never been criticized before, really, he has never had to confront the consequences of his decisions. Now the record of failure is becoming too long to ignore. He is getting criticism, he is being forced to confront his failures, and he does not know how to deal with it. It would have been better not just for the country, but for him, had he been held accountable earlier and felt compelled to evaluate his decisions and decision making. If that had happened, he might have learned something, become wiser and more humble. But he did not.

    Eventually chickens do come home to roost.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 26, 2014 @ 5:19 pm

  8. @Blackshoe. That is a real insult to Buchanan (and Pierce).

    There are some similarities. Buchanan was a notorious ditherer. Obama is as well.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 26, 2014 @ 5:29 pm

  9. Question to readers regarding ISIS behavior and not particularity Obama’s response. Both Foley and Sotloff made statements before beheading. Here is Sotloff’s from yesterday.

    What sort of coercion does ISIS use to get them to make statements like that? Is it all theater and photoshopped for final video? It seems very unilkely that they would make such statement directly before their final moments. Instead, not pleading to their families or hatred of their captors. Robert Kaplan has some interesting thoughts on the video,

    Does anybody have an idea how they coerce them to make such calculated statements? Particularly Sotloff who saw what happened to Foley.

    Comment by scott — September 3, 2014 @ 3:23 am

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