‘A decade of war is now ending,” President Obama declared in his inaugural address a few weeks ago. That was an odd statement, considering that we have entered a second decade of war. In the same speech, the president referred to having won “peace in our time.” Neville Chamberlin said something similar. Wars are not ended by historically tone-deaf rhetorical flourishes.
Two weeks ago in Algeria, Islamist terrorists conducted their bloodiest raid in years. The attack came only a few months after President Obama proclaimed that al-Qaeda had been “decimated.” The Algerian government launched an immediate counterattack, refusing to consult with the U.S., France, or Great Britain. That refusal reflected concern that Western nations would argue against using force, resulting in negotiations that would weaken Algeria’s internal war against Islamists.
Doubts about America’s resolve are disturbing, because competition among nations and radical sects will persist. Nations such as Russia, Iran, or China will extend their influence by intimidation in the absence of America as an offsetting force. Who is least feared by his adversaries: Putin, Xi Jinping, or Obama?.
The military has little standing within the Obama administration. The hardest-fighting commander in the past ten years is General James Mattis, called “Mad Dog” by the troops for his implacable combat aggressiveness in Iraq and Afghanistan. Put in charge of the Central Command by Secretary of Defense Gates, he broadened attacks against Islamist terrorists and developed contingency plans against Iran. A month ago, he learned via a Pentagon press release that he was to retire in March, five months early. It seems his questions about Iran had irked Obama’s national-security adviser, Tom Donilon.
All four-star generals are appointed by the president. The commander-in-chief can make a change whenever he wants and give no reason. That is right and proper under our system of government. But what message does it send to the services when the one leader known for his war-fighting skills rather than bureaucratic and political talents is retired early via a press handout? Mattis’s toughness was well known across the Middle East. The image of a determined warfighter is precisely what a commander-in-chief should cherish when trying to exert leverage upon a recalcitrant Iran, and yet the president was apparently happy to dismiss him.
This standoffish attitude keeps repeating. The night Osama bin Laden was killed, President Obama and his top officials sat before a video screen in the White House; a famous photo was released depicting the commander-in-chief so deeply involved n the situation from the White House briefing room, epitomizing their hands-off approach to war.
As Islamist terrorists have spread across the Maghreb, the hesitancy of our policymakers has become obvious. According to the Wall Street Journal, some administration officials believed “the U.S. shouldn’t get involved because these Islamists aren’t targeting the U.S.” Last September, when our ambassador to Libya was missing for ten hours during a terrorist assault, no U.S. military force responded. When French forces attacked Islamist militias in Mali in January, the White House dithered even about sending modest logistical aid to our NATO ally.
And even then, it’s not enough to promise behind-the-scenes aid while other countries do the rough work. Throughout Mr. Obama’s second term, our warriors will remain in combat. What defines a warrior? A warrior is a volunteer who risks death to kill the enemy at close quarters in ground combat. It is not that pilots, submariners, surface warfare officers, logisticians, and those in other military specialties lack fortitude. But they do not face daily the imminent threat of death by choosing to patrol or to raid in order to kill the enemy. Those who choose ground combat comprise the nucleus that inspires others in the military who face less risk, but share the same dedication.
The dedication of our policymakers is less clear. When Congress or the president orders our warriors to unsheath their swords, they as policymakers have decided to kill, too. Sending our troops into Afghanistan was the same as swinging an axe at the enemy. But our policymakers behave as if they are clicking the mouse on a computer.
Based on their performance over four years, it’s clear this national-security team looks at war as a deliberate, slow-moving planning exercise. This is the perfect model for employing special-operations commandos who spend months developing a target package, with every contingency anticipated. The result is a dead Osama bin Laden. But that’s not war; that is excellent detective work, capped off by a professional SWAT team.
War is chaos, with the enemy usually holding the initiative and surprising us, as at Benghazi. War is the Twin Towers crashing down and firemen from all different units spontaneously rushing forward. War is hurling whatever force is at hand into the fight, when your ambassador is missing and terrorists are running amok. One motto of the Marines has always been: “We’re the nation’s 911 force.” A few days ago, the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs defended the lack of prompt military response by repeatedly saying, “We’re not a global 911.”
That comports with this administration’s view of war; it does not comport with actual events. The iconographic image of Obama’s warmaking shows policymakers in the White House clustered in fascination around a video screen, watching the killing of Osama bin Laden. In a similar vein, White House aides have portrayed Mr. Obama as poring over photos of terrorists, selecting which to execute by drone strikes. These antiseptic images portray war as an impersonal, bloodless video game with the president, like a prison warden, approving executions at midnight.
War’s chaos, gore, and mistakes — rectified only by dogged determination — should not be airbrushed. A president, a secretary of defense, and a secretary of state must not conduct war by stealth — privately choosing targets across the globe while publicly bemoaning a bloated military. Our policymakers must be morally and mentally engaged in concert with the warriors they have deployed to kill the enemy.
Yet rather than bonding with the warriors, too many policymakers vote to make war and then stand aside as spectators, free to boo and jeer. Senator Harry Reid declared Iraq “lost,” even as a surge of American troops was stabilizing the country. Mr. Chuck Hagel, nominated to be the secretary of defense, has railed against “senseless” war. There is no worse symbol of inconstancy than throwing away one’s medals or objecting to a war while citing one’s service in that same war as a reason for holding public office, as the president’s new secretary of state has done.
The role of the secretary of defense is to lead, not to wring his hands. Outgoing secretary of defense Panetta struck the right chord when he proclaimed that “terrorists . . . will find no sanctuary, no refuge, not in Algeria, not in North Africa, not anywhere.” “No sanctuary” means terrorists will be attacked wherever they gather. Yet for over a year, the Obama administration has attempted to create a “playbook” specifying when drone strikes against terrorists can be legally authorized. Strikes inside Pakistan are excluded from the rules; for all other countries, consult the playbook. This means there will be no sanctuaries, except when there are.
Policymakers are metaphysical warriors; they have committed to kill at no personal risk. They must especially believe in the righteousness of their cause, because they face but one test. They must look a corporal in the eye and give him a reason to fight: “I expect you to kill and risk being killed because . . . ” If a policymaker cannot fill in the “because,” then he has failed in his duty.
Policymakers must share the implacable warrior spirit they expect our troops to embrace. Enforcing America’s pledge of “no sanctuary” doesn’t require a playbook of legalisms; it requires a commitment to kill our enemies.
But our military leaders haven’t done much for their own cause. On January 24, the military opened up ground-combat billets to females. “If they can meet the qualifications for the job,” Secretary of Defense Panetta said, “then they should have the right to serve.”
That individual right comes at a collective cost. If you’re a grunt, you go forth to kill. That is your mission. You are an animal on the hunt. Once you insert women into male hunting packs, you introduce the complex dynamics between the sexes. In close, primitive quarters with no privacy, there will be instances of friction, copulation, over-protectiveness, jealousies, miscommunications, and resentments. There is a tradeoff between increasing the career opportunities of the individual female soldier and decreasing the net performance of the pack.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said, “if we do decide that a particular standard is so high that a woman couldn’t make it, the burden is now on the service to come back and explain to the secretary, why is it that high?” The general was practically guaranteeing that politically appointed civilian officials will lower entry standards. It is baffling how standards can be too high when warriors are risking their lives.
If the Joint Chiefs are serious about a substantial influx of females — to, say, 5 to 10 percent of units — into ground combat, they are risking the cohesion of the male hunting packs and greatly increasing their chances of defeat in battle.
That will make it only harder for them to persuade civilian policymakers that war is not a video game. At the same time, the military’s experience of what happens to warriors like Mattis and to ambassadors like Stevens will cause them to be overcautious in their advice. With a shrinking budget and no affinity with the instincts of the civilian appointees, the military bureaucracy will become passive.
After 9/11, the mood of the military was to fight. Twelve years later, that mood has changed.
General Colin Powell came up with the “Pottery Barn rule” — if you employ force in a country, you’re obligated to restore it at whatever cost. Wary of the policymakers and weary of campaigns they themselves initiated, the military will now invoke the Pottery Rule to avert commitment when the next serious crisis hits us. In response, the Obama administration, focused here at home, will click the Special Operations computer mouse to look tough without taking any risk.
Perhaps that will allow us to successfully drift along. Perhaps not.
— Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine, has written seven books about combat, including Into the Fire: a Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle of the Afghanistan War.