WASHINGTON – The Syrian crisis over the last few weeks has thrust President Obama into a role in which at times he has seemed uneasy: that of commander in chief.
The prospect of an attack to punish Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons exposed the Nobel peace laureate’s strained and somewhat tentative relationship with the military. His dramatic oscillation from detachment on Syria to the brink of military action, with him ultimately settling for a potential diplomatic solution, has unsettled many people in uniform.
Obama’s two former defense secretaries weighed in on the controversy Tuesday night, saying they disagreed with the president’s decision to seek congressional authorization for a strike. While Leon E. Panetta said a cruise missile attack would have been worthwhile, Robert M. Gates said the plan was akin to “throwing gasoline on an extremely complex fire in the Middle East.”
“To blow a bunch of stuff up over a couple of days to underscore or validate a point or principle is not a strategy,” Gates said.
The prospect of a new U.S. military intervention in the Middle East elicited grumbling from a war-weary generation of senior commanders and veterans.
Their reluctance was informed by lingering distrust over the Obama administration’s handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have been wound down in ways that have left many in uniform feeling apprehensive, if not bitter.
But there was also trepidation about a White House that many career military officers say has monopolized decision-making in a tight circle dominated by civilians and that often deliberates endlessly, seemingly unwilling or unable to formulate decisive policies.
“The U.S. military feels it has been burnt with half-measures,” said Peter Munson, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who most recently served as a senior adviser to the commandant of the Marine Corps.
The White House’s response to the alleged nerve gas attack in the Damascus suburbs startled commanders.
“These last few weeks have raised serious doubts about their agonizing failure to reach a clear decision,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, a military strategy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former senior intelligence official at the Pentagon.”This basically was seen as the president’s worst moment.”
While Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry were advocating a strike with zeal, senior military leaders had deep reservations. The divide was perhaps most noticeable during congressional hearings that featured an emphatic Kerry sitting alongside Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the cerebral and soft-spoken chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Dempsey, Obama’s top military adviser, said he supported the president’s decision to carry out a “limited” strike but added caveats in the form of a lengthy and detailed accounting of the potential fallout.
Obama’s relationship with the military was indelibly shaped early in his presidency by the 2009 debate over whether a troop surge in Afghanistan that his generals were pressing for stood a good chance of turning around the worsening conflict.
“From his perspective, he trusted the military and they betrayed him,” said an official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a blunt assessment that is shared by many in defense and policymaking circles. The president felt boxed into a political corner by leaks about the troop numbers the generals wanted. After that, “I think this White House made it pretty clear that they intended to run all foreign policy from the Executive Office Building.”
The Obama administration’s inability to keep a residual U.S. military force in Iraq after a lengthy policy debate left some senior military officers feeling dejected. The Pentagon wanted to keep 10,000 to 15,000 troops in Iraq after the drawdown.
“The White House was doing what they do best, which was scrutinizing every proposal, which was driving some of the planners on the Joint Staff crazy,” said the former military official.
Under Obama, the era of high-profile, outspoken generals who became de facto policymakers and politicians during the presidency of George W. Bush came to an abrupt halt. Charismatic and media-friendly generals learned to be circumspect.
Veterans of the war in Afghanistan have become disappointed about how long it has taken the White House to articulate its long-term plan for the country, where the troop withdrawal is scheduled to end at the end of 2014. T.M. Gibbons-Neff, a former Marine sergeant who served two tours in Afghanistan, said many of his contemporaries have belatedly come to appreciate George W. Bush’s decisiveness as commander in chief.
“Guys thought Bush had his stuff together,” said Gibbons-Neff, 25, the president of the veterans association at Georgetown University. “If he was making a good call or a bad call, he at least was making a call.”