New York Times
September 14, 2013
WASHINGTON — In the weeks of sometimes bewildering debate in Washington about what to do in Syria, one truth has emerged: President Obama has transformed his relationship with the Pentagon and the military.
The civilian policy makers and generals who led Mr. Obama toward a troop escalation in Afghanistan during his first year in office, a decision that left him deeply distrustful of senior military leaders, have been replaced by a handpicked leadership that includes Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Through battlefield experience — Mr. Hagel as an infantryman in 1967 and 1968 in Vietnam, and General Dempsey as a commander during some of the most violent years in Iraq — both men share Mr. Obama’s reluctance to use American military might overseas. A dozen years after the Pentagon under Donald H. Rumsfeld began aggressively driving national security policy, the two have wholeheartedly endorsed a more restricted Pentagon role.
“Hagel was not hired to be a ‘secretary of war,’ ” said one senior Defense Department official. “That is not a mantle the president wants him to wear.”
The crisis in Syria is the most recent and most powerful example of how Mr. Obama, elected twice on a promise to disengage the United States from overseas conflicts, has moved the Pentagon to a back seat. In this case, it is Secretary of State John Kerry who is leading the charge, not the far less vocal Mr. Hagel and General Dempsey.
“Whether you call it a reset of the Pentagon or a reflection of what our overall policy is,” the Pentagon official said, “the military instrument is not going to be the dominant instrument of our policy, particularly in an instance like Syria, where we are not looking at military force to solve the underlying civil war.”
Senior aides to Mr. Hagel and General Dempsey say that the two have offered blunt advice on Syria, and that both support, as would be expected, the president’s goal of having ready a limited military strike aimed at stopping the Syrian government from using chemical weapons.
But neither is the chief advocate for military action. The drum major for intervention is instead Mr. Kerry, who also served in Vietnam, and who has eclipsed Mr. Hagel and General Dempsey in public passion and in minutes at the microphone during Congressional hearings. (If negotiations to neuter Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile founder and the president orders military action, Mr. Hagel and General Dempsey will assume the role of administration spokesmen on the mission.)
But their public postures ahead of any military action have been so restrained that they have drawn criticism from lawmakers who want a more activist defense secretary and Joint Chiefs chairman.
Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, has been the most critical. Just before the current push for an attack, prompted by what American intelligence agencies say was the deaths of 1,400 people by poison gas, Mr. McCain said General Dempsey was campaigning to avoid action by describing the risks and costs of the most extreme options for intervention. The general’s assessments “are beyond anything that any rational military thinker that I know would ever contemplate,” Mr. McCain said.
Even some senior administration officials, in private conversations and in e-mails, have sniped at Mr. Hagel and General Dempsey, saying that their reserved demeanor undercut the administration’s arguments for action in Syria.
In one exchange before Congress, General Dempsey said that an American strike on Syria would be “an act of war,” prompting a rebuttal from Mr. Kerry, who said the options were nothing like the huge mobilizations and lengthy deployments of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Both statements were accurate, but the points of view reflected different assessments of the risks and benefits of intervention by the Pentagon and the State Department.
Mr. Hagel, who was wounded twice in Vietnam and opposed escalating the Iraq war in 2007, would be expected to be more cautious about using force than his three Pentagon predecessors, Leon E. Panetta, Robert M. Gates and Mr. Rumsfeld, said Anthony H. Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Mr. Gates, a holdover from the George W. Bush administration who pushed for more troops in Afghanistan, was never afraid to stand up to the Obama White House; Mr. Panetta, as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, oversaw the 2011 military raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
But Mr. Hagel, though wary, is not a pacifist about military force. “Cautious does not mean he wouldn’t use it,” Mr. Cordesman said. “And Dempsey has developed a Colin Powell-like distrust of getting orders to engage that are sufficiently fuzzy so no one can really know what they mean.” Mr. Cordesman was referring to the former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who enunciated a military doctrine of using overwhelming force, but for clear political ends.
Pentagon officials say that in a nation where civilians control the military, General Dempsey is also adamant that he not influence the public debate about whether to strike Syria.
“The chairman’s role is to provide military options based on desired outcomes and to articulate the risk to the mission and to the force,” said one military officer. “His job is not the ‘whether’ to use force, but how to use force once the civilian leadership decides.”
Mr. Hagel, as the civilian leader of the Pentagon and a political appointee to the president’s cabinet, is certainly empowered to argue whether to use force. But senior officials say he sees his mission as managing a Pentagon that is nested within diplomacy, rather than being a center of gravity unto itself.
“He takes decisions about when to use force extremely seriously — something colored by his service in Vietnam, of course, and also by the Iraq debate in the Senate,” said another senior Defense Department official, recalling Mr. Hagel’s denunciations when he was a senator of the Bush administration’s execution of the war. “This is a Ping-Pong game with American lives,” Mr. Hagel told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January 2007. “And we better be damn sure we know what we’re doing, all of us, before we put 22,000 more Americans into that grinder.”
In assessing the actions of Mr. Hagel and General Dempsey, military analysts describe them as saluting and following orders.
“They are doing what their commander in chief wants,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution. He said that Syria policy-making might be too cacophonous if everyone in the president’s national security team sounded off at equal volume.
“With the president and Kerry both quite outspoken on this, it wouldn’t be healthy to have Hagel and Dempsey trying to match the vocals,” Mr. O’Hanlon said.
Pentagon budget cuts, including billions ordered by the White House, have already constricted a Defense Department that grew in size and power after Sept. 11, 2001. To many Pentagon officials, the cuts are another assertion of centralized control over decision-making by the White House.
After all, when Mr. Obama first pressed the pause button on military action against Syria — and sent the question to Congress for a vote to authorize the use of force — Mr. Hagel and Mr. Kerry learned of it only after the president had reached the decision with his White House inner circle. Neither cabinet secretary was involved.