What a mess. Escalation in the Middle East should have our hair on fire. Instead, our attention is focused on the fascinating machinations of the Old Fool and his minions trying to stay out of their own way, as the connections between his cohorts and Putin’s Russia continue to unravel.
The situation could be safely under the watchful eye of Secretary Tillerson, but with his undermanned and poorly resourced State Department, he is already fully occupied with a disturbing situation evolving in North Korea and a major state visit from the Chinese leader Xi Jinping due within a week. The reticent Secretary has released no details of these events or his intentions – but they both have world shaking possibilities embedded within. They have captured what is left of the imagination of the commentariat, when it is not focused on the Russian conspiracies, real or fictitious. There does not appear to be any time in the Secretary’s schedule for matters pertaining to the military situation in the Middle East.
As to the media, with these new events coming on stage soaking up all the spotlights, the U.S. involvement in the Middle East has apparently become passé, a matter of ho-hum, to be relegated to the end roundup on the nightly news and the back pages of the daily tabloids. Nobody seems interested, and nobody wants to be bothered. Nothing could be worse.
Consider: Contrary to Obama’s promises and the campaign promises of everybody, American forces are now fighting on the ground at the front lines in the Syrian siege at Raqqa, with close to 500 troops on the ground and more expected. We have become central to the Iraqi siege of Mosul, in both ground and air operations there, with over 5,000 troops in country and more expected. We have expanded our involvement in Yemen considerably beyond that of last year; drone attacks last month, for example, exceeded the strikes of last year. Increased support is expected to continue. Military operations in Afghanistan continue without let-up, which has slowed if not stopped the once-planned reduction in forces there.
All of this is being accomplished without fanfare and without any uptick in political or diplomatic planning, without any redefinition of the military mission or any end strategy in any of these areas, and without Congressional authorization. Information flow from Defense has been curtailed considerably, and from State is non-existent.
With the burgeoning influence of ISIS and Al Qaeda, Obama was being drawn into evolving events in the Middle East and Afghanistan, but was attempting to limit the actual engagement of American forces in any fighting on the ground, trying to emphasize that diplomatic solutions and political planning were the key to any significant progress in these regions. Major command decisions on all military operations, down to specific air strikes and drone attacks, were kept in the Whitehouse, in an endeavor to maintain tight control over any escalation of military operations, and to reduce civilian casualties.
Since the administration change in January, responsibility over Middle East affairs appears to have been transferred to or assumed by the Department of Defense under Secretary Mattis. The reports are that General Mattis is coordinating everything with the National Security Advisor McMaster and Secretary of State Tillerson, but since the involvement is primarily military, General McMaster and Secretary Tillerson consider General Mattis, at Defense, to be primary.
The White House has no expertise in the area of military management of operations. The Old Fool has demonstrated that he is not capable of assimilating complex details of anything beyond bumper-sticker simplicity, and he has no one on his personal staff that is any better qualified. Bannon has some military experience, but nothing in the area of foreign policy or Middle Eastern affairs. No one else comes close. Most of the Whitehouse staff positions that existed under Obama remain unfilled – and deliberately so.
The State Department under Secretary Tillerson has been severely hampered in carrying out its responsibilities by the lack of resources. The entire top-tier level of the department was either fired or resigned when Trump took office, and none of the major positions have been filled. Tillerson’s attempt to secure an experienced deputy of his choosing was derailed by Whitehouse infighting or intervention. The department’s critical positions of both deputy secretaries, all six undersecretaries, and most of the assistant secretaries remain empty. Tillerson is apparently operating the entire Department with little more than his personal staff.
This means that the U.S. involvement in the Middle East is now essentially under military control of the Pentagon and without civilian oversight. Under General Mattis’s direction, operational control of military operations below policy level has been moved forward to Central Command, and from there to subordinate units as required. The immediate result has been easier and faster airstrike and ground response. However, while there has been no change in the rules of engagement or in the requirement for consideration of civilian casualties in operational planning, there has also been a dramatic increase in the number of civilian casualties being suffered in the areas of U.S. involvement. While under the existing military conditions, the military defeat of ISIS seems inevitable, ISIS keeps evolving and the tactical considerations keep changing. The military, political and diplomatic complexities boggle.
Does history repeat itself? Reliance upon the generals was what got us up to our collective necks in Viet Nam. Secretary of Defense McNamara and President Johnson both admitted long ago that they abdicated their responsibility of civilian oversight and allowed the generals to hold sway over both military and policy decisions in Viet Nam, and that this was a huge mistake.
I do not question the capabilities or motivations of General Mattis and the military command out of the Pentagon. I have no doubt that Mattis firmly believes he has the best interests of the nation at heart. But there is truth to the adage, “Where the only tool is a hammer, all the problems become nails.”
History teaches that it is essential that there be broad policy oversight from the civilian perspective to counterbalance the military point of view. It is essential that all the tools available be out of the box and included in the planning and implementation of policy. As it stands, this important civilian counterbalance appears to be missing in the oversight structure in place over operations in the Middle East at this time. The Whitehouse does not have the capacity or capability and the Department of State does not have the resources to monitor the developing situation effectively.
The numbers are relatively small today – just as they were in Viet Nam in the middle 1960’s. But surely we recall how quickly those numbers accelerated.
What could possibly go wrong?