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The Syria Mess and the Pentagon's Serial Failures

Walter Russell Mead

When Robert Gates was Secretary of Defense, he found that the Pentagon was ruled by a culture of bureaucratic delay and careerism. This culture affected even such vital issues as getting effective armor to military vehicles, leading to many unnecessary deaths and mutilations by IEDs. In the middle of war, that is, the Pentagon was still in a peacetime military mode, a mode in which buck-passers, bureaucrats, and time-servers push paper, and award one another certificates of merit. One hand washes the other as everybody gets trophies, medals, and promotions at the end of the year.

The pathetic failure of the Pentagon’s efforts in Syria indicate that if anything, this culture of self-congratulation and failure is getting more entrenched. An extensive autopsy of the now-infamous Syria training program in the Wall Street Journal today has plenty of damning details about the White House’s lack of decisiveness and micromanagement. But it also details numerous lapses from the military leaders tasked with carrying out the training, all of which culminated in this farce:

“We, who are directly in contact with the Pentagon, I swear to God, we have no clue what is going on. It is very complicated,” [U.S.-trained rebel commander] Abu Iskandar said in late August as his group was falling apart.

Pentagon-trained fighters said they stopped wearing military uniforms provided by the Americans, fearful of being attacked. On Sept. 19, Col. Daher withdrew from Division 30, citing a lack of American support and coordination.

Col. Patrick Ryder, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, said nine of 54 members of the first class were still operating with the U.S. in Syria. Abu Iskandar said all but three fighters remain.

This isn’t the Pentagon’s only embarrassing, dangerous, and costly failure of late. Think of the collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of ISIS, or the Afghan military. After 14 years of U.S. force building efforts in Afghanistan, we seem to have created a force that is better at raping boys than at fighting the Taliban. The failures in that country show that we have a military culture in which the greatest sin is rocking the boat. It’s apparently far better to let corrupt Afghan soldiers chain slave boys to their beds than to create some kind of public disturbance. This is a strategy of “hearts and minds” that will win popular support against the Taliban?

The U.S. is running a vast, multi-country war effort that has become unhinged from any serious strategic vision, and we have a military system in which the commanders who see the futility and try to do something about it (and there are plenty) are sidelined. Go along to get along is the way things work in Obama’s Pentagon, and both the White House and the Congress are more interested in making the military look pretty on the parade ground than making it perform effectively in the combat zone.

The President and the political overseers in Congress have made their priorities clear: You can persist with strategies that don’t work for years and still get steadily promoted up the ladder as long as you jump through hoops about integrating women and gays into more military roles. There’s nothing wrong with those goals. Integrating the armed services racially was once attacked by traditionalists as a step that would destroy military cohesion, but it’s made both the U.S. and our armed services much stronger over time. But the essence of military leadership (and effective civilian oversight) is to get the combat missions done with the lowest possible cost and loss of life.

Perhaps choosing between successful military operations and reshaping the makeup of the military doesn’t have to be either/or, but under President Obama we have opted for the latter and tanked the former. The Pentagon has failed at its major military objectives in the Middle East. It has not built up the Iraqi Army into an independent force that can defend against ISIS and sectarian militias. It has not made the Afghan army the core of a state that can hold territory and retain the loyalty of its people and so prevent the Taliban’s resurgence. And it has not created an effective rebel force in Syria as a third way between Assad and ISIS. Perhaps these objectives were always unrealistic and the missions should never have been launched, or perhaps they needed more focused and proactive civilian leadership. But in any case, the brass on the Pentagon office doors has been polished to a high shine during the Obama years even as the missions in the field have serially failed.

Failures of military leadership are ultimately failures of civilian oversight. Abraham Lincoln fired General McClellan and promoted General Grant because, while McClellan dressed well, handled himself well in social situations, and polished his army to perfection on the parade ground, he didn’t win battles. General Grant was occasionally drunk, almost always slovenly, and didn’t always say the right things to the press. He did, however, win battles. Right now our political leadership seems to prefer an army of McClellans to an army of Grants, and the consequences are visible across the Middle East.

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