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The Pentagon Fights Back

Earlier this year, Seymour Hersh, America’s leading investigative journalist, published an intriguing article on U.S. policy towards the growing conflict in Syria and Iraq. “Military to Military [1],” which appeared in the London Review of Books, maintains that the Pentagon’s intelligence analysts have, since 2013, been advising against the White House policy of removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, arguing that it would create a power vacuum in the country that would inevitably be exploited by groups like ISIS. The analysts cited the examples of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya as examples of what might go wrong. They also argued that arming a group of “moderate” rebels to overthrow the Damascus government was delusional because even moderates were of necessity entering into “accommodations” with radical groups.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff also observed that the more extreme rebels were being supplied with weapons by feckless allies, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, who were exploiting the crisis in support of their own narrowly construed agendas. They attributed the White House obsession with al-Assad to a Cold War type of mentality born of the view that Syria is a client state of Russia, which continues to be seen as the principal challenge to U.S. global hegemony. It is not a view that the Pentagon embraces, seeing a much more complicated evolving threat situation in the heart of the Arab world that has little or nothing to do with great power rivalry.

According to Hersh, after being ignored by the White House, the Department of Defense began pushing back behind the scenes to undermine the administration policy on al-Assad by sharing intelligence with a number of foreign liaison services—to include Russia, Germany, and Israel—that it knew would be leaked to the Syrian government. The “leaks” of intelligence started in the summer of 2013 and continued until 2015, with the intention of strengthening Damascus’s ability to resist opposition forces, most particularly al-Nusra and ISIS. The information being shared was regarded as “military to military” exchanges and neither the White House nor the State Department was briefed regarding it.

As the United States has also been simultaneously arming and training the so-called “moderate” opposition forces, the possible support of al-Assad would suggest that Washington has been engaged on both sides of the conflict, which is quite possibly an accurate assessment. One expects a certain lack of coherence in the foreign policy emanating from the Barack Obama White House, but what is particularly disturbing is the “Seven Days in May” [2] suggestion that the Pentagon might be running its own unconstitutional foreign policy without the consent of the nation’s civilian leadership.


To be sure, there have been rumblings of discontent from the Pentagon that might have suggested that something was not quite right. Former Defense Secretaries Leon Panetta [3] and Robert Gates [4] have complained in their memoirs that the national security policy process was increasingly being micromanaged by the White House, which itself was nevertheless unable to exercise effective leadership to establish priorities.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel resigned in late 2014 [5] reportedly because he had been disconcerted by a lack of clarity coming out of the White House. He reportedly objected to the increasingly secretive National Security Council (NSC) usurpation of security policy decision making that hitherto had been shared with the Defense Department. He also had sharp disagreements with National Security Advisor Susan Rice over contradictions in the policy against ISIS, arguing that a well-articulated program to address the terrorism threat as a regional issue rather than as distinct problems in Iraq and Syria was essential. He also questioned the lack of any clear policy towards the Syrian government. Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, was eventually asked to resign and was replaced by non-veteran bean counter Ash Carter, who has carefully not made waves while characteristically pushing issues like gender equality in the military’s combat arms to the fore.

Hersh’s article has only received limited reviews, most of which have been somewhat disparaging [6], quite likely because a rogue Pentagon is the worst nightmare of every establishment politician and journalist. And, to be sure, there has been some questioning [7] of the “facts” as well as judgments made in his piece, though they have not refuted his central thesis. To be fair, Sy Hersh undoubtedly has top-level sources in the Pentagon and he is meticulous in his fact checking but there is always a possibility that a source might well be embellishing a tale or exaggerating his or her own involvement in it.

As chance would have it, I have recently had candid discussions with two current members of the National Security Council who will have to remain nameless. The first one dropped a bombshell, to my mind, by observing that President Obama, like Bill Clinton, is largely indifferent to intelligence reports. He rarely reads the digests that are presented to him each morning and prefers to make decisions based on his own instincts and what he is being told by his advisors.

The second official, who has been on the NSC since Obama took office, explained the Obama world view. He said that Obama has been convinced by his three closest foreign policy advisors—Rice, Valerie Jarrett, and Samantha Power—that the top U.S. foreign policy priority should be the “responsibility to protect,” or R2P as it is abbreviated. He described how the Obama team sees the Rwandan Genocide [8] of 1994, in which at least half a million mostly Tutsi tribesmen died while the world looked on, as equivalent to the way in which neoconservatives view the Holocaust, leading them to act as if it’s always 1938 in Munich. The interventions in both Libya and Syria can be explained in those terms: a bid to prevent mass slaughter of civilians without any particular regard for what comes afterwards or what the strategic consequences might be. If Obama agrees in principle to keep substantial numbers of American troops in Afghanistan past 2017, the reasoning and possible consequences will be the same.

Given the basic White House prejudice of protecting civilians as the top priority, it becomes easy to understand why Bashar al-Assad is seen as the fundamental problem in the Syria fandango. Al-Assad, it is generally agreed, has killed more Syrians than have the rebels, which makes him the principal enemy. What is ignored in that calculation is the actual U.S. interest in the conflict, which is, to put it in its simplest terms, that ISIS and al-Nusra actually directly threaten the United States while al-Assad does not.

This deliberate unwillingness on the part of the White House to discern a simple truth regarding the conflict has been noted recently by an increasing number of journalists and even politicians. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard [9] and Virginia State Senator Dick Black [10], both of whom are veterans, have publicly challenged the implications of the current U.S. policy.

The White House inclination to respond to claims of genocide as the principal driver of policy was prominent in the 2011 intervention in Libya. Investigative journalist Gareth Porter has described [11] how the Defense Intelligence Agency studied the Libyan situation and concluded that probability of mass killings taking place if Gaddafi were to remain in place was based only on “speculative arguments.” It warned correctly and presciently that no actual U.S. interest would be served by intervention, which would only open the door to an extremist takeover of the government.

Porter also recounts how in an eerie parallel to later developments in Syria, the White House approved a plan to cooperate with Qatari government attempts to arm the Libyan rebels. Washington soon discovered that the weapons went mostly to the most radical groups, including the al-Qaeda affiliate.

According to Porter, the U.S. military’s African Command persisted even after the bombing began, arranging a cease fire directly with Gaddafi which would enable him to step down and turn over the reins of government to his army, which would preempt an extremist takeover. The State Department under Hillary Clinton refused to consider such an option. When it was reported that Gaddafi had been killed she laughed and quipped, “We came, we saw, he died.”

The heaping-Ossa-upon-Pelion history of regrettably poor policy choices made by the White House brings one back to the beginning. Is Sy Hersh possibly correct in describing Pentagon pushback against administration policies? And if so, what does that mean in terms of civilian control of the military? As both Hersh and Porter observe, the activity by the generals did not change policy one bit—and one might also imagine that it would be a brave flag officer who would jeopardize his career by engaging in activity that would be unlikely to have any real impact.

I would suspect there is more than a touch of hyperbole in the tale of generals engaging in derring-do to tweak the nose of the White House and I would add that the rebellion by the Joint Chiefs, if it occurred as described, is really little more than a display of petulance. But it is nevertheless interesting to note the depth of unhappiness among professionals in government with the administration’s stop-and-go policies in the Middle East. It is also important to recognize that the collaborative bureaucratic process that once upon a time generated foreign policy has largely been abandoned under the Obamas and one might observe, parenthetically, that U.S. president presumptive Hillary Clinton was part and parcel of the new reality both for Libya and Syria. More recently, she has called for [12] a no-fly zone for Syria which might well lead to the shooting down of Russian planes. I wonder what the Joint Chiefs of Staff think about that?

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.

20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "The Pentagon Fights Back"

#1 Comment By AJ On February 9, 2016 @ 1:19 am

I can understand that an independent military is a real concern, but the same ought to be said of the usurpation by the executive branch of Congress’s constitutional authority to declare war. If the Joint Chiefs are going rogue, at least it would be on the side of less, not more, intervention, at least for now. How ironic if the military functions as the best thing we have left to counterweight the balance of powers of the dysfunctional civilian government.

#2 Comment By JEinCA On February 9, 2016 @ 1:45 am

I am actually of the opinion that the only ones who could actually restore the Constitutional Republic the way it was meant to be is the United States military. If the top generals and admirals in this country decided that they would no longer take orders from the White House or Congress until the Constitution was restored to its rightful place as the “Supreme Law of the Land” that would probably be the only way to save the Republic at this point.

#3 Comment By Appalled On February 9, 2016 @ 1:49 am

“The State Department under Hillary Clinton refused to consider such an option. When it was reported that Gaddafi had been killed she laughed and quipped, “We came, we saw, he died.””

What a dreary tale …

Blunders like Libya and Syria are appalling on their face, but what’s really dispiriting is that the deeper you delve, the worse it gets, the more willfully stupid and incompetent our leadership seems to have been.

The business in Libya and Syria is especially appalling. It’s encouraging to hear that our military people at least want to be seen as not having approved these horrendous decisions, though one naturally suspects self-serving hindsight is a major ingredient.

And HRC’s fingerprints are all over it, even if the former one-term junior Senator from Illinois was in the Oval Office. Bad judgment, bad character, bad news all round. From Bill Clinton to Bush/Cheney to Obama/HRC, we’ve been miserably served in the foreign policy sphere for the better part of a generation.

#4 Comment By Kurt Gayle On February 9, 2016 @ 2:04 am

Hersh wrote: “The longtime consultant to the Joint Special Operations Command could not hide his contempt when I asked him for his view of the US’s Syria policy. ‘The solution in Syria is right before our nose’, he said.” Regarding ISIS, he said, “…The United the United States, Russia and China – need to work together. Bashar will remain in office and, after the country is stabilised there will be an election. There is no other option’.”

However, wrote Hersh, “the military’s indirect pathway to Assad disappeared with Dempsey’s retirement in September [and] his replacement as chairman of the Joint Chiefs [by] General Joseph Dunford…Obama now has a more compliant Pentagon. There will be no more indirect challenges from the military leadership to his policy of disdain for Assad and support for Erdoğan.”

Hersh cited the Cold-War-type testimony by General Dunford before the Senate Armed Services Committee in July, two months before assuming office:

“‘If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia,’ Dunford said. ‘If you look at their behaviour, it’s nothing short of alarming.’ In October, as chairman, Dunford dismissed the Russian bombing efforts in Syria, telling the same committee that Russia ‘is not fighting’ IS. He added that America must ‘work with Turkish partners to secure the northern border of Syria’ and ‘do all we can to enable vetted Syrian opposition forces’ – i.e. the ‘moderates’ – to fight the extremists.”

Scary stuff! Alice-in-Wonderland stuff!

And given the “Syrian no-fly zone” proposal being bandied about by Hillary Clinton and some of the leading Republican neocon candidates for president – a proposal that could lead to the US shooting down Russian planes over Syria – there is good reason for all Americans to be alarmed about the future of US foreign policy in the region.

#5 Comment By Hankest On February 9, 2016 @ 10:15 am

“We Came, We Saw, He Died.” Sigh…

Easily as embarrassing as Bush parading around a flight deck while wearing a form fitting flight suit. But at least he was Commander in Chief at the time, HRC was our chief diplomat when she decided to paraphrase Julius Caesar.

I can imagine how idiotically foolish she’d act as president.

#6 Comment By connecticut farmer On February 9, 2016 @ 11:26 am

Soldiers are warriors. Not social engineers.

Truly the inmates have taken over the asylum.

#7 Comment By Max Skinner On February 9, 2016 @ 1:27 pm

When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To the military, every solution must involve the military. And the military must be the driver of the situation, not some civilian. That’s why you have the an elected official as head of the forces, not some multi-star general or admiral.

#8 Comment By ek ErliaR On February 9, 2016 @ 2:32 pm

To some of it appears that the neo-con/neo-liberal dominated State Department created by Brzezinski and Albright (both Central European émigrés) has been running its own “unconstitutional foreign policy” since the Clinton Administration.

#9 Comment By Ronald Thomas West On February 9, 2016 @ 4:12 pm

I’d simply point out there is ample political alignment at the Pentagon, almost entirely with the religious-right. Whether providing Obama with less than optional military planning such as the failed surge in Afghanistan or refusing to clean up the Christian madrassa that used to be the Air Force Academy, there are opportunities to undermine civilian oversight at every turn. Not that Obama would need help along the way to disaster but he’s likely getting it.

I have a problem with Hersh’s assessment on account of the self-serving nature of the leaks coming out of the Pentagon; our generals are NOT some patriotic crew with little self interest; as a class the majority of them have moved on to armaments sales over the past decade when reaching retirement age. Or have joined boards of directors with vested interest in American military adventurism, such as former NATO Supreme Commander James Jones’ joint ventures with CSIS & Chevron (as well, the so-called ‘National Prayer Breakfast’ which is actually more military-industrial related geopolitical networking than ‘prayer’.)

I expect the information Giraldi relies on (via Hersh) is as much ‘polishing brass’ as anything else –

#10 Comment By Richard Steven Hack On February 9, 2016 @ 4:50 pm

The problem with this analysis is the notion that Obama is some kind of “peace President” who is lured into war by threats of massacres and genocide.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Obama is nothing but a pre-Emancipation South plantation foreman who does what he’s told by his white and Jewish Chicago military-industrial complex masters.

Worse, he then sugar-coats these orders with outright lies – which is where this nonsense about “responsibility to protect” originates. You have to remember that Obama is a back-stabber and a serial liar.

As an example, when Brazil and Turkey broached obtaining a deal with Iran in 2010, Obama wrote a letter to the heads of both countries outlining the precise deal he allegedly wanted. The Administration disparaged the notion that the deal was possible. When Brazil and Turkey had the deal 48 hours later, within a further 24 hours Obama reneged on the deal. Which is why the Brazilian leader published the letter – to establish that Obama lied.

So anyone who believes Obama has destroyed FOUR countries during his presidency – Ukraine, Libya, Syria and Yemen – just because he’s a “softie” who wants to defend civilian lives is living in a dream world.

Obama has no trouble killing civilians via drones anywhere in the world. He had no trouble preparing to go to war with Syria in August, 2013. He has no problem with Saudi Arabia massacring thousands of Yemenis and threatening the rest with starvation. He has no problem sending arms to neo-Nazis in Ukraine to shell the civilians of Donbass on a daily basis.

He is doing what he is told to do – and lying about it with every word out of his mouth. It is appalling that even realists like Phil can still pay lip service to the “change we can believe in” Kool-Aid.

Obama is NOT a nice guy. Deal with it.

#11 Comment By Banger On February 9, 2016 @ 6:24 pm

RTW. I disagree with you. I think the military today is radically different from the old military of the immediate post WWII that urged Kennedy to a pre-emptive strike of the USSR during the Cuban Missile Crisis where they were willing to risk maybe 40 million American deaths against 150 million USSR deaths. These men were monsters of the most appalling sort–we have a nest of Strangeloves in our Pentagon. No wonder Kennedy didn’t last! Today these men are more nuanced and more educated, in my view. I’ve encountered a few of them and they still believe is such primitive ideas such as “honor” (almost forgotten in our popular culture) and thus are guided far more from morality than the courtiers and plotters that occupy the State Department and many parts of the CIA and civilian Pentagon. Yes, Generals are pretty self-serving–and not always honest but Hersh has been, over the years, spot on in his analysis and those officers he cites (along with some in the CIA) have used him as a spokesman for some time. I have never seen Hersh as very off base. He told us the military did not want to go into Iran, did not want to pursue the same goals as the madmen (and some women) in the neocon movement. It is the military that has stopped the stampede towards war in Iran and Syria and we should be very thankful.

#12 Comment By Lee On February 9, 2016 @ 10:01 pm

There needs to be a clean sweep up in DC.

#13 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 9, 2016 @ 11:38 pm

“…what is particularly disturbing is the ‘Seven Days in May’ suggestion that the Pentagon might be running its own unconstitutional foreign policy without the consent of the nation’s civilian leadership.”

If only the “civilians” paid attention to the constitutional precepts, themselves – which they notoriously have not been, trampling every one of the amendments in the Bill of Rights. If the military, similarly sworn to uphold the constitution, is discomfited, it is no wonder.

The truth of the matter is, the civilian government is not accountable to the 300 million civilians that make up most of the citizenry, but to donorist elites – the infamous one per centers who own most of the politicians through the campaigns they buy for them and the lucrative post-government employment they provide for service well done – to their own interests.

The humanitarian angle, by its actual results of death, destruction and mass misery upon those it is visited upon, explains how this purported “right to protect” has no actual humanitarian intent or benefit, even at home, where the special caring is for the likes of the donorists, the vampire squid squeezing average American folks.

Additionally, it is indicative of how “unreality based” American political leadership has become, of either duopoly, whatever the current musical chair seating, that Obama, like Bush before him, tries to remake reality by his gut instincts – that is, wishful thinking according to preferred ideological fantasy.

#14 Comment By Will Harrington On February 10, 2016 @ 12:37 pm

Max Skinner

This argument is not born out by history. Then again simple statements rarely are. Just as a simple rebuttle, Ike, a military man if there ever was one, did not see the military as the solution to every problem, nor did Kennedy. The military was only one tool in their toolboxes. The truth is that many in the military have seen war and would rather avoid the destruction and carnage as much as possible, whereas most of our hawks have not “seen the elephant”.
One thing I do wnder about is what happens when or if enough people in the military, or even retired, decide that the oath they took to defend the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic is more important than their careers?

#15 Comment By Eileen Kuch On February 11, 2016 @ 1:07 am

Obama concerned with civilians in the Mideast and other areas in the world? Tell that to the survivors of drone attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc. Obama’s been ordering drone attacks in those areas since he first took office in January, 2009.

#16 Comment By carroll price On February 11, 2016 @ 7:21 am

@ JEinCA:

“I am actually of the opinion that the only ones who could actually restore the Constitutional Republic the way it was meant to be is the United States military.”
Well, that ain’t never gonna happen. Because if it did, that would be the end of a standing army or gigantic proportions. Something the military brass would never condone.

#17 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 11, 2016 @ 7:47 am

I fully buy that the current xecutive cam into office with the desire never to allow anything like Rwanda to occur without a US response if possible. But none of the examples resemble anything akin to Rwanda. Not situationally, not in intensity of depth or scope. The Rwanda scenario just has not played out.

It looks more like the Rwanda, never again scenario was used to “hoodwink” the executive to violate one of the main reasons the executive was elected.

In fact, the humanitarian disaster of regime change over any strategic gains is one reason the established manner of foreign policy is under fire. And it’s not an established way of doing things for Republicans until the last sixteen years.

This is the agenda of Sec Clinton an company, the likes sadly of, Advisor Rice (who should know better) and Ambassador Powers (who truly sees American might as a source of good to right wrongs, I guess if you ignore the wrongs in doing good and the what appears to be some very dark and negative consequences one can advocate such ideas) and others.

The US is a generous humanitarian state. W do good that most will never know about. But that as part parcel we must topple governments to do so = has proven a dubious proposition.

#18 Comment By goldhoarder On February 11, 2016 @ 10:42 am

“The interventions in both Libya and Syria can be explained in those terms: a bid to prevent mass slaughter of civilians”

Pictures from Libya and Syria before the wars and after the wars make me doubt any of this is true. Add in the mass refugee crises and it makes it more so. Assad and Gaddafi did not al2ays bow down to the empire’s demands. Exactly the same reason Iran is targeted. That is the real reason these countries are our enemies. R2P is just the excuse. Much like WMDs were the excuse of the previous regime.

#19 Comment By noyb On February 11, 2016 @ 11:05 am

“The US is a generous humanitarian state. W do good that most will never know about.”

In that case, will you please stop being so generous.


#20 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 11, 2016 @ 5:48 pm

“In that case, will you please stop being so generous.”

I think you missed the point. There is no need to topple governments in order to engage in humanitarian missions.

The key is to come to some grip with what that means and when it justified. My perspective is very narrow.

1. Genocide – very narrow (probably does not include civil conflicts.)

2. Natural disasters.

3. Refugee aide outside of the US in the closest safe haven in the region.

There are always grey areas. But again the point is that Sec Clinton and those who desire regime change under the guise of humanitarian missions would not fit into that model. (save rare instances)

The point was to reiterate that the US can close it’s borders and still engage in acts of humanitarian aide without toppling a single state.

It would be nice to improve the efficiency of our humanitarian aide at home.

Since you did not specify your objection. I hope the response covers the matter.

My take, Mr. Trump, Sen. Cruz and others are easy/soft on immigration