- - Friday, September 19, 2014

It is the 21st-century version of the classic question once posed by The Eagles. So who you gonna’ believe: President Obama or your lyin’ eyes? Whether you’re dealing with a cheating spouse or an incompetent president, a moment comes when the picture sharpens. This past week provided many such moments, all centered on the widening gap between our best national security experts and the amateur in the Oval Office.

If Benghazi was still unclear, then we now have evidence that the Obama White House, caught up in its own narrative and facing a close election, was prepared only for press adulation, not resurgent terrorists. If you wondered what difference it all made, then we now have reason to believe that Hillary Clinton was scrubbing documents with a zeal she hadn’t shown since Whitewater.

Maybe you wondered whether randomly dropping bombs three days a week could possibly dislodge the 31,000 black-flag waving fanatics of the Islamic State, or ISIS. It turns out that the nation’s highest-ranking military officers wonder that, too. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and legally obligated to tell unpleasant truths to Congress, grudgingly admitted to the Senate last week that the part-time air campaign against the Islamic State (“Operation: Nuance From Above”) might not actually work. If — against all odds and every presidential calculus — the Islamic State persisted in threatening the United States, then Gen. Dempsey might just recommend that the president actually consider sending in ground troops.

If that seemed like a Kabuki dance, then it’s probably just your lyin’ eyes again. Gen. Dempsey knows perfectly well that the idea of winning a war from the air alone — against the Islamic State or anyone else — is absurd. That heresy was hatched under President Clinton and is still taken seriously by Democratic presidents (if no one else). It was refuted for all time by historian T.R. Fehrenbach in his classic on Korea, “This Kind of War,” written to debunk the notion that nuclear weapons had ended all other forms of combat. “You may fly over a land forever. You may bomb it. You may pulverize it. But if you would go in and possess it, then you must do as the Romans did and put your young men into the mud.”

That rule still applies even when war weariness rules out nation-building. You must possess the enemy’s territory just long enough to apply deadly force to him — and before he does the same to you. One man who understands that is retired marine Gen. James Mattis, a legendary combat commander. In Iraq, he joined the firefight of an embattled Marine outpost, bringing the guns of his convoy to bear while higher-ranking generals twiddled their thumbs at the conference table.



On Thursday, he told the House Intelligence Committee that it was silly to rule out American boots on the ground. “If a brigade of our paratroopers or a battalion landing team of our Marines would strengthen our allies and create havoc [and] humiliation for our adversaries, then we should do what is necessary with forces that exist for that very purpose.” Left unsaid: You don’t try to push a string or to build a coalition by leading from behind.

Although it attracted little attention, probably the most devastating critique of President Obama’s leadership was published last week in the September edition of Foreign Policy magazine. The magazine’s CEO, David Rothkopf, wondered if Mr. Obama’s foreign policy could be saved after an “extraordinary string of errors missteps alienation of allies … scandals halfway measures and outright policy failures.” He even quoted an anonymous foreign diplomat, “You’re still a superpower, but you no longer know how to act like one.”

Although our acquaintance began during a previous Washington lifetime, I have known Mr. Rothkopf for more than a decade. A card-carrying member of the Democratic establishment, you won’t find a more knowledgeable and insightful observer of Washington bureaucratic politics. Nothing in his long critique is therefore more devastating than his portrait of designated presidential prevaricator Susan E. Rice, a brusque, foul-mouthed embarrassment to what few allies we still have left. How, Mr. Rothkopf seems to ask, could such a person enjoy the confidence of a president mindful of his own reputation — to say nothing of the country he purports to lead?

If last week was a watershed in our national conversation about those lyin’ eyes, then Republicans should best rejoice quietly. Usually waxing most eloquent about the need for their own election, they should consider carefully how they will pick up the pieces — maybe even literally. Opposing an unfolding debacle is easy: But governing effectively in the backwash of those disasters is always the real trick.

Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national-security issues.

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