There’s a cloud of malaise worthy of Jimmy Carter that has settled over the nation’s military. The man who should be able to clear away the cloud, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, won’t be able to do anything about it.
The causes of this malaise are plainly evident, lying by the side of the political road like burned-out cars. They are the accumulated wreckage of seven years of failed policies, indecision and inaction.
Begin with President Obama’s strategy that called for American troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan by now. Later, it was supposed to be by the end of 2016. As of two weeks ago, our military leaders had reportedly given up on Mr. Obama’s strategy to pull out of Afghanistan and were predicting that we would have to have troops there indefinitely — for decades to come at least — if the Kabul government was to have any chance of surviving rapid overthrow by the Taliban.
The military has no appetite for more decades of nation-building wars, nor should it. Having compounded President George W. Bush’s mistakes in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama evidently intends to kick that can down the road so that his successor will have to deal with it. Which leaves the military — from the grunts on the ground to the generals in the Pentagon — wondering what their mission in Afghanistan is and whether anyone cares if they succeed. The same is true for Syria and Iraq.
On Jan. 20, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joe Dunford said that Russian airstrikes have stabilized the Bashar Assad regime in Syria. What that means is that Russia — and its ally, Iran — have won the war in Syria. Those two nations have struck out at the anti-Assad forces, not the Islamic State, or ISIS. The accompanying failures of desultory U.S. airstrikes to destroy ISIS and Saudi and other Arab forces to evict Mr. Assad combine to leave our military wondering what they are trying to accomplish and how anyone plans for them to succeed.
As Foreign Policy reported, the malaise has reached into the usually irrepressible special operations world. In a Dec. 8 memorandum to Mr. Carter and Gen. Dunford, Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of Special Operations Command, complained that too much is being said publicly about spec ops movements. Gen. Votel demanded that secrets be better kept. He wrote, “I am concerned with increased public exposure of [Special Operations Forces] activities and operations, and I assess that it is time to get our forces back into the shadows.”
Gen. Votel’s memo may have been precipitated by Mr. Carter’s Dec. 1 statement that between 100 and 150 special operators were being sent to attack ISIS targets in Syria. That is precisely the kind of public statement that foils special operations and results in operators being killed.
This problem isn’t new. It goes back at least as far as the White House revealing that SEAL Team 6 had killed Osama bin Laden. Our spec ops guys are left to wonder why their civilian bosses routinely violate their operational security.
Another part of the malaise is brought about by the fact that some Pentagon leaders are nearly in open revolt against Mr. Carter over his (Obama-dictated) spending cuts and revised spending priorities.
Mr. Carter, to his credit, is trying to reduce spending on some overpriced and under-capable weapon systems, such as the Navy’s littoral combat ship (LCS), the 11th of which was launched on Jan. 30. The Navy wants to buy 52 of them and Mr. Carter wants to cut the purchase to 48. The LCS — known for good reason as the “little crappy ship” — is supposed to be able to fight in coastal waters, but has been shown unable to survive in combat. Two have broken down and have had to be towed to port for repairs. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus (an Obama favorite) may take his fight to buy all 52 to the Hill, or ask the prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, to do it for him.
Mr. Carter and Gen. Dunford are stuck holding the budget bag for Mr. Obama, which is less a bag than a fiscal sieve. On Feb. 1, the White House announced that more American heavy weapons would be sent to Europe at the cost of $3.4 billion as a supposed deterrent to further Russian aggression. Mr. Carter also wants to increase munitions stockpiles and preserve the A-10 attack aircraft, all at additional cost and contrary to the Pentagon’s position in 2015. But as House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry said on Feb. 2, there’s no money in the president’s budget to do any of those things.
Ashton Carter must be feeling the same frustrations that eventually drove two of his predecessors, Bob Gates and Chuck Hagel, out of the Pentagon. They quickly discovered that defense policy was run out of the National Security Adviser Susan Rice’s office with the support of the president. The secretary of defense is told the result, often not even consulted, when major decisions are made.
Susan Rice’s influence isn’t something that a Marine lance corporal or Air Force lieutenant would know or care about. But they, and the rest of the troops know that nothing seems to be working. They know that decisions aren’t being made, strategies aren’t being devised and that serious problems are being ignored. That’s what has produced the malaise that every member of the military must feel.
• Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research and the author of five books including “In the Words of Our Enemies.”