Obama: A Better General Than His Generals?

“I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.” – A quote attributed to President Obama by Patrick Gaspard, Obama’s first political director.

That quote has surely come back to haunt President Obama. As James Hohmann wrote for POLITICO:

Obama biographers and even friends have noted his tendency from a young age to sometimes to let self-confidence curdle into excessive self-regard — a trait he will try to suppress in Denver.

But the main problem with Obama’s quote was not that it was immodest but that it was inaccurate

Obama has not presided over an especially skilled political operation. Relations with key members of Congress and with key political figures in states have been frayed, driven by complaints that Obama does not do enough outreach and political fence-tending.

As for his speechifying talents, while obviously formidable on some occasions, they have not added up to effective presidential communication.

The question now is whether President Obama feels that he is a better general than his generals. Unfortunately, if the current rift between Obama and the U.S. military over the strategy to combat the Islamic State is any indication, the answer is clearly yes.

In August, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in a Pentagon briefing that the Islamic State was “an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision” that “will eventually have to be defeated.”

President Obama apparently disagreed. Several days later he pushed for a path that would “shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it’s a manageable problem.”

Sensing the disconnect, the White House tried to clean up the message.

“I think there should be no question that the president desires to degrade and destroy ISIS,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said following the president’s comments.

But just a day later President Obama issues a gaffe heard round the world.

“I don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” Obama told reporters. “We don’t have a strategy yet.”

Admitting that you have no clear plan to deal with the world’s best funded, most militarized, and most dangerous terrorist group is a surefire way to engender public backlash, but it also happened to be the truth. The Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin reported that in the weeks leading up to that meeting there “were deep divisions inside the administration’s deliberations over Syria” and that top cabinet members, national security staffers and his National Security Council engaged in “an effort to convince Obama to expand his air war against ISIS in Iraq to Syria as well.”

The utter confusion hasn’t abated and indeed it has increased in recent weeks.

On a recent trip to the Middle East Secretary of State John Kerry was quick to label it a “very significant counter-terrorism effort,” a clear sign that the White House did not want to use the word “war.”

But White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters the very next day, “The United States is at war with ISIL in the same way we are at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates.”

And on Wednesday Gen. Martin Dempsey testified in front of the Senate that if the effort to destroy ISIS through an air campaign does not work, he would “make a recommendation that may include the use of military ground forces.”

President Obama immediately came back to snuff that idea out.

“I want to be clear,” Obama told troops at MacDill Air Force Base. “The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission.”

Regrettably, very little is clear when it comes to this administration’s plan to fight the Islamic State. But if our military leaders can’t discern and communicate a workable strategy, then this war (or counter-terrorism effort) is doomed before it really has even begun.