You won’t be surprised that three former Secretaries of Defense are going very public in their pointed critiques of President Obama’s strategy – or lack thereof – against ISIS.
What may surprise you is who those three SecDefs are. They are the last three – all three who have served under Obama before current Secretary Ashton Carter. Chuck Hagel on Sunday joined Leon Panetta and Robert Gates in observing that Obama’s strategy to remove Syrian President Bashar Assad has its priorities reversed, and should focus on defeating ISIS instead of bringing down the Assad regime.
The debate over Syrian refugees and what to do with them gets the most media attention in the political landscape in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks. But the most stunning political development is the abandonment of the administration’s strategy by even President Obama’s allies, people to whom he has turned during his own administration for advice on how to deal with ISIS and other strategic threats.
Consider these notable Obama officials, now warning of problems, or worse, with the administration’s strategy and actions on ISIS:
- Michael Vickers served both President Bush and President Obama in career jobs in the Defense Department, including four years as Obama’s Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence. He writes in POLITICO that “our strategy in Iraq and Syria is not succeeding, or is not succeeding fast enough. We are playing a long game, when a more rapid and disruptive strategy is required.” Translation: we need action – now – and we’re not getting it.
- Former Acting Director of Central Intelligence Mike Morell tells POLITICO’s Michael Hirsch “This strategy, this policy, is not achieving its aims. I don’t see how anyone could come to any other conclusion. Here’s the two things that have to happen: You have to take away their safe haven…[and] you have to have a military and intelligence approach to removing leadership that results in rapid frequent removals from the battlefield. It’s got to be one, two a week, not just one or two every three or four months.” Urgency, and action, now (do I detect a theme building here?).
- Former CIA Director David Petraeus testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in September about the administration’s strategy against ISIS. The Wall Street Journal reported afterward that Petraeus “urged a stronger airstrike and special forces response to mitigate the civil war and refugee crisis—or else ‘the fallout from the meltdown of Syria threatens to be with us for decades, and the longer it is permitted to continue, the more severe the damage will be.’”
There are two disturbing themes in all of these comments. The first is the lack of urgency that every observer sees. The second is the time frame in which these observations have been coming. Gates began his critique of the administration’s strategy in the Middle East in his memoirs, over a year ago, and has included updated criticism in virtually every interview he’s given since. Panetta warned that Obama had “lost his way” last October. Petraeus’s comments two months ago revived a debate that had been dormant over the summer. And the Paris attacks brought Hagel and Vickers, among others, to the table.
The most powerful commentary on the current US strategy against ISIS comes, though, when you add all of the statements together, and add the context of who said them. Consider this: President Obama’s own Defense Secretaries from the beginning of his administration until this year (Gates ‘09-‘11; Panetta ‘11-’13, Hagel ’13-’15), and Directors of Central Intelligence from the beginning of his administration until the current one (Panetta ’09-’11, Morell ’11 & ’12-’13, Petraeus ’11-’12), all agree: despite President Obama’s defiance, his ISIS strategy isn’t working, and won’t work.
The wave of credible, sympathetic voices telling President Obama to change his strategy could go two different ways. It could turn into a piling-on, which would likely make the administration withdraw further into its own cocoon, convincing itself everyone else is wrong and it is right. Or it could be more like an intervention, with President Obama’s former hand-selected advisors gathering around him to tell him it’s time to send his ISIS strategy off to rehab for a complete “life change.”
The good news for the administration: it is running out of former advisors saying its ISIS strategy is a failure. The bad news: that’s because they’re almost all on the record saying so already.