- - Thursday, September 5, 2013

Pentagon leaks on Syria highlight low military morale

While President Obama’s unsteady leadership on Syria has drawn fire from Congress, the international community, the media and others, he is losing faith from one key constituency that he absolutely needs in his corner: the military.

A news story last week titled “White House peeved at Pentagon leaks,” quoted anonymous current and former Obama officials slamming the military in graphic terms, blaming it for leaking tactical information on “ship dispositions and potential targets,” along with a generous supply of gratuitous complaints to The Washington Post and The New York Times.

As a former Pentagon spokesman who served for four years during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, I can say with certainty that while there are always some leaks, the scale of today’s attempted disruption to military contingency planning is unusually high.

Leaks of operational planning and outright complaints to the media are a sign of low morale. Think Bradley Manning. Though no one has even come close to Manning in releasing sensitive information — at least, that we know of — there is no shortage of service members who are making their displeasure with Team Obama a public spectacle.

Take, for example, a rash of pictures of men in uniform circulating on Facebook and Twitter, hiding their faces from view with various scribbled anti-war messages about Syria — a development not lost on media worldwide.

Though it’s disappointing to see military men and women resort to such tactics, perhaps they might get a sympathetic ear from Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who once threw away his military medals to protest the Vietnam War.

Even if Mr. Kerry doesn’t buy the comparison, there are plenty of reasons to explain this alarming groundswell of resistance to the commander in chief.

For starters, there is a widespread recognition within the military that Mr. Obama’s self-declared “red lines” on Syria and his intent to send a “shot across the bow” of Syrian President Bashar Assad don’t constitute a coherent or realistic long-term strategy to achieve objectives in U.S. interests.

Next, as trained warriors, members of the military know that when one side strikes the other, there could be far-reaching consequences — such as getting struck back. As students of past armed conflicts, they know that when we have attacked other Middle Eastern ruthless dictators and left them in power, such as Moammar Gadhafi in 1986, and Saddam Hussein in 1991, they got their revenge. In 1988, Libyan agents downed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people. Saddam waged a low-level war against the United States and Israel for the next 12 years after being driven from Kuwait until a U.S.-led coalition of more than 30 countries came back to finish the job.

Mr. Obama’s planned limited strike on Mr. Assad would be more akin to a video game, where there is an instant outcome that is in our favor. This, of course, discounts any reaction by Syria’s modern, Russian-equipped military against the United States and Israel, but also ignores the worldwide threat posed by Hezbollah, a terrorist proxy for both Iran and Syria that has carried out successful attacks in Lebanon, Israel, Argentina and Bulgaria. In 1983, Hezbollah killed 241 U.S. and 58 French servicemen in the Marine barracks bombing at Beirut.

Our armed forces are intently watching the inept leadership in foreign policy, which has been widely reported by a host of expert commentators across the political spectrum.

CNN’s Fareed Zakaria wrote in a column this week, “It’s hard not to conclude that the administration’s handling of Syria over the last year has been a case study in how not to do foreign policy.” Meanwhile, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John R. Bolton remarked during an appearance on Fox News with Greta Van Susteren, “It’s about time for the rest of the world to understand that Barack Obama and the United States are not the same thing.”

Add to all of this $1 trillion in defense cuts over next decade (thus declining benefits and rising costs for active-duty and reserve forces and retirees), a humiliating sequestration for Defense Department civilians and social experiments such as repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and pushing integration of women into combat arms. As it is, military suicides are at an all-time high, having doubled militarywide since 2001, and tripled for the Army, another indication of a stressed force.

While the president focuses his attention on winning the upcoming congressional vote on the use of force in Syria, building an international coalition beyond France, and persuading the American people to back his “red line,” he ought to spend more time focusing on his solemn obligation to take better care of our troops.

J.D. Gordon is a retired Navy commander and former Pentagon spokesman who served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2009.