I am not one of those critics of President Barack Obama who think he lies, deliberately, to the American people. I think it’s much worse than that. I think he actually believes what he says. Most of the time.
I think his inner circle, his senior advisers, men and women to whom he has delegated great power and responsibility, are on the whole, both professionally and intellectually, second rate. (Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Tom Moorer had this take on such people: he said they were “educated beyond their competence.”) Too often, a small coterie close to the president meddles in affairs much better left to the normal chain of command within the various departments. Too often, this coterie has no institutional memory.
It has to be either that or the even more disturbing possibility that we have twice elected a President of the United States who is himself not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, as many of us were led to believe. Two former Secretaries of Defense, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, in books they wrote after leaving office, documented the problems political insiders, and sometimes the president himself, created for them. If outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has any plans to write a book, it’s a good bet he will have similar complaints to air.
There was an interesting exchange recently between Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey and Fox News’ Chris Wallace, on one of those Sunday news programs. It’s not been well reported, though it should have been. Wallace, citing the Gates and Panetta books, asked Gen. Dempsey if he had experienced any White House attempt to “micromanage” the military. “If you asked me if I’m being micromanaged, I don’t know. I better go ask the White House before I answer that question,” the general replied.
He meant this to be a joke, but if that was what it was, it fell flat. Very flat. Thud. This administration has fired more general and flag officers than any other in recent memory. A poll (for whatever that’s worth) found that only 15 percent of service members asked had a favorable opinion of their commander in chief. It’s been evident for a long time that the president’s willingness to seek, much less act on, military advice is quite minimal.
Dempsey was not present at Tuesday night’s State of the Union address. Perhaps he was given bunker duty in case a bomb went off in the House chamber. A bomb did go off. But the bomb was President Obama’s hour-long speech. Far from making nice to Republicans, who now control both the House and the Senate, he threw down a gauntlet. Pass any legislation you like, he seemed to say. My veto pen is ready. Not exactly a “can’t we all just get along” moment.
Much of the president’s speech was taken from his party’s campaign playbook — tax the rich (how often can this cat be skinned?) and give the middle and lower classes more free stuff. The Islamic jihad against Western civilization was pretty much brushed off. He boasted that while there were 185,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan when he was first elected, now there were only 10,000 and these, too, would soon be coming home. Our combat mission in these two wars is now over, he said. (I applaud him for this. If you are in a war you lack the stomach to win, the sooner you get out, the better.)
Declaring a war over is not the same as saying it’s won. When the president removed all U.S. troops from Iraq, against advice given him by his generals, it led to the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), a hitherto little known group of Islamic terrorists (a term Obama stubbornly refuses to use) that now controls nearly half of Iraq and Syria. Alarmingly, it also led to the reintroduction of some 3,000 U.S. troops (thus far) to “train and advise” a shattered and politically emasculated Iraqi Army.
Is there anyone who truly believes that we will not soon see a replay of this in Afghanistan? We are, of course, leaving thousands of military advisers there. God help them. We’ve trained and advised the Afghans for 13 years. When will they be able to stand on their own? The answer to that, I suggest, is never.
It’s a small world in Washington, D.C. It’s Disneyland on the Potomac.
R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.