Is Barack Obama at war with the military over how to proceed in Iraq and Syria? If you gave a cursory reading to recent news reports, you might think so. “Rift widens between Obama, U.s. military,” read a headline in this very paper. A speech Obama gave reiterating his determination not to fight another ground war in Iraq was “a gigantic slap in the face to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” said Vox.
But it may be time to ask whether this split — both in how extensive it is and what its significance might be — is getting overblown.
I’m not arguing that everybody’s in perfect agreement over the strategy to combat ISIS. There are no doubt some in the military who would like to re-invade Iraq, and some who think the strategy the President laid out won’t be sufficient to accomplish his goals. And there has been tension between this White House and the Pentagon before, particularly when Obama felt that generals were trying to manipulate him into approving policies in Afghanistan.
But let’s look closely at what it is they’re disagreeing about when it comes to ISIS. Many in the media seem to be a little fuzzy on exactly what has been ruled in or out. We could use some clarity on what we mean when we say “ground troops.”
Obama’s position all along has been that this will not be an American ground war. But last week, Joint Chiefs chairman Martin Dempsey told Congress that if, at some point in the future, he thought ground troops were needed, he’d recommend that to the President.
This is actually a pretty innocuous, not to mention obvious, thing to say. War is complicated and dynamic, and of course we’d always want military leaders to tell the civilian leadership what they think ought to be done, even if it would contradict something the civilian leaders had pledged before.
Nevertheless, Dempsey’s testimony got a huge amount of attention, framed as a bitter conflict between the military and the President. Take the interview George Stephanopoulos did yesterday with Robert Gates, who was defense secretary under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Stephanopoulos starts by all but begging Gates to go after Obama: “You were very blunt this week on the question of ground troops, said the strategy can’t succeed without boots on the ground, something the president has ruled out. So do you think the president’s strategy is doomed or is he not being straight with the American people?”
Gates responds by saying that when he refers to ground troops he’s talking about something far different from an invasion force: “some small number of American advisers, trainers, special forces and forward spotters, forward air controllers are going to have to be in harm’s way, and I think that number will be very small.”
That’s not too different from what Obama himself has already proposed, and Gates spent most of the interview agreeing with the President. But the chyrons running on the screen through the segment read, “Rift between Obama and military?” and “Power struggle over strategy?”
Meanwhile, over on Meet the Press, former Joint Chiefs chairman Mike Mullen got asked a similar set of questions. He replied: “I think it’s been blown way out of proportion in terms of the disagreement between the military and the President.”
The question of what exactly is a “ground troop” is something we’ll have to be acutely aware of in the coming months, because there certainly is a danger of mission creep. We could start out with only advisers and trainers, then add those forward air controllers (who are near the front lines but aren’t firing at the enemy), then add special forces. It might stop there. Or it might not. At that point there might indeed be growing and significant differences between the military and the President, which are worth understanding. Obama himself has been emphatic about not using “combat troops,” but would we really be surprised if a few months from now he approves some limited deployment of special forces to carry out specific missions?
For now, though, the fact that some in the military don’t agree with the President on strategy is not only a feature of pretty much every military conflict, it’s also an inevitable outgrowth of the American system. When we established civilian control over the military, the purpose wasn’t to make generals happy. Some of them will grumble sometimes, and that’s fine. But we shouldn’t make more out of those disagreements than they warrant.