Key lawmakers from both parties say frustration with the White House among the top military officers is at its highest level in decades, the product of President Obama’s cautious approach to the wars in Syria and Iraq and an indecisive inner circle of White House advisers who, critics say, have iced the Pentagon out of the policymaking process.
“There’s a level of dissatisfaction among the uniformed military that I’ve never seen in my time here,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain in an interview. “For some of us who are a little older, let’s go back and read the Pentagon Papers — what the administration is doing is the kind of incrementalism that defined much of the Vietnam conflict.”
The Arizona Republican is known as a fierce critic of President Obama’s foreign policy, but his complaints were echoed by an unlikely source: Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
“Frustration among the uniformed service is real,” the Washington Democrat said, adding that the administration “does keep things in the White House and has not been more inclusive in the decision-making process.”
But Mr. Smith also defended the administration’s overall approach to the troubled Middle East, arguing that the “sheer complexity of the situation” following the Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State — also known as ISIS — have defied a simple U.S. solution. “I don’t think dropping 50,000 U.S. troops down is going to fix the situation,” he said.
Both lawmakers made their comments in interviews with The Washington Times this week ahead of Saturday’s third annual Reagan National Defense Forum, a summit expected to feature much soul-searching about America’s current role in the Middle East and beyond among officials and analysts from both inside and outside the administration.
The event, held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, aims to “provide clarity to the debate in a setting outside Washington,” according to Reagan Foundation Executive Director John Heubusch.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter will be there. So will Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, a long with a host of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and such former George W. Bush administration officials as Condoleezza Rice. While Mr. Heubusch told The Times that the hope is “to create a dialogue without partisanship,” he also said a key underpinning of the forum is to get people reflecting on what Ronald Reagan became known for more than anything else in his time in office — his success in bringing an end to the Cold War.”
“And he did that,” Mr. Heubusch said, “through his whole peace through strength strategy.”
Mr. Smith said Republican leaders deserve a fair share of the blame for the polarized debate because of what he said was political posturing against nearly every aspect of President Obama’s Middle East policy.
Some of the attacks are so derisive, he said, that they have effectively crippled the prospects for serious national security discussions on Capitol Hill.
“I don’t think [Sen. McCain] falls into this — but there are others, and they criticize everything the administration does. They criticize [the president] for taking out [former Libyan strongman Moammar] Gadhafi and for not taking out [Syrian President Bashar] Assad. There’s just a lot of partisanship on the Republican side that contributes to the discord over the current Syria policy and they deny the fact that they do not have much of an answer themselves for what should be done differently.”
In search of a strategy
But Mr. McCain argued that the frustration on Capitol Hill and at the Pentagon stems from the administration’s “complete lack of any kind of coherent strategy, much less a strategy that would have any success on the battlefield” against Islamic State and the Assad regime.
“We’re sending 50 — count them, 50 — special operations soldiers to Syria, and they will have ‘no combat role,’ the president says,” said Mr. McCain. “Well, what are they being sent there for? To be recreation officers? You’re in a combat zone, and to say they’re not in combat is absurd.”
But the White House, he argued, has effectively blinded itself to such absurdities by promoting a system over the past seven years that suppresses dissenting voices. “Compliant and easily led military leaders get promoted,” he said. “People who have spoken truth to power get retired.”
He pointed to the cases of Marine Gen. James Mattis, reportedly dismissed as head of U.S. Central Command in 2013 for pressuring civilian officials in the White House on potential military options against Iran; and Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, allegedly pushed out as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency last year amid clashes with the White House over his leadership style.
When it comes to actual policy, Mr. McCain lamented, the administration pursues half-measures and decisions, “when they are made, consistently disregard recommendations from the uniformed military.”
Such recommendations, he argued, often get overridden by National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice and Senior Adviser to the President Valerie Jarrett, both of whom are close to the president.
White House offensive
The White House this week tried to go on the offensive over its decision not to engage more deeply in the Middle East’s wars — dispatching Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes to talk at a highly publicized “Defense One” summit in Washington.
“The fact of the matter is, the United States could spend every last resource we have in the Middle East,” Mr. Rhodes said at the summit. “There could be a justification for us to take complete ownership of events in Syria, of events in Yemen, of events in Iraq. The question is, is that smart strategy? Does that make sense?
“The president’s judgment is, it doesn’t,” he said, adding that “if you spent a trillion dollars in Iraq over a decade with 150,000 U.S. troops serving there and Iraq is in the situation it is today, what leads you to believe that there is some resource allocation from the United States that’s going to put Syria back together in the near future?”
Mr. Rhodes’ arguments triggered mixed reactions on Capitol Hill.
Some lawmakers, particularly hawks on the Republican side, complain that administration officials like Mr. Rhodes falsely present America’s options in all-or-nothing terms as an excuse not to take forceful action.
“Sometimes indecision, the decision not to make a decision, is itself a choice,” House Committee on Foreign Relations Chairman Edward R. Royce, California Republican, said at a hearing this week. “The choice was made in the United States not to stop [Islamic State] when it could have been stopped.”
The failure to break Islamic State’s hold on Syria and Iraq, and its spread into North Africa, have resulted in “very poisoned relations that now exist between many in both houses of Congress and the president,” said Mr. McCain. “There’s a total lack of confidence in the president’s leadership,” he said.
Mr. McCain said Mr. Obama’s past claims that things were improving in the region have undercut his credibility today.
“All you have to do is look at a map of the Middle East in 2009 and then compare it to a map of today,” he said.
Polls also suggest American voters are increasingly wary of the administration’s response to the wars in Syria, Iraq and Libya, which have killed more than a quarter-million people and spawned a vast refugee crisis stretching into Europe during recent years.
More than 6 in 10 now disapprove of President Obama’s handling of the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll published Thursday, an 8-point jump compared to a similar poll last January.