At the Pentagon, they call it “shaping the battlefield.” It’s shorthand for taking steps, military and otherwise, before launching an attack. In the long drumbeat of war prior to a possible attack on Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons last month, the Obama Administration — starting with the President himself — has fumbled this critical prewar phase.
That’s led to a fair amount of private grumbling among active-duty military officers, and public criticism from those who have retired. They don’t like going to war with squishy objectives like preventing Bashar Assad’s government from using chemical weapons. They express concern — if the initial attack isn’t substantial enough — that Syria could use such agents again. So there is stepped-up military planning for a strike that could be double the size contemplated two weeks ago, spread over 72 hours and calling in B-2 or other warplanes to deliver bigger bombs than those atop Tomahawk cruise missiles.
But it may be too late to convince the nation, the Congress and the military that war is the right choice, right now. Obama boxed himself in with his stark declaration of a “red line” against Syria’s chemical-weapons use last year. Then he seemed to punt when he said — following Assad’s alleged use on Aug. 21 — that he actually only wanted to fire a “shot across the bow” to convince Assad not to do it again. When the British Parliament voted down its nation’s military involvement on Aug. 29, the President responded by calling a time-out, to seek congressional approval — after his Administration had been banging the war drums, loudly, for more than a week.
“It is a confusing mess, up to this point,” Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, the Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said on Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation. “This cannot be about Barack Obama. It has to be about what is in the best interests of the United States of America.”
Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, made the rounds on the Sunday talk shows, warning of the message Iran would take away from Congress failing to authorize the use of military force against Syria. The West believes Iran is close to producing a nuclear weapon — a second “red line” Obama has said he would not let Tehran cross.
“If Congress wants to hold the Assad regime to account, and if Congress wants to make sure that the Iranians, Hizballah and others understand that you cannot have greater operating space to pursue weapons of mass destruction like the nuclear program in Iran, then they have to vote ‘yes’ for this resolution,” McDonough told CBS. But some military officers play down the parallels between the two, suggesting they’re not equivalent.
Robert Scales, a retired two-star Army general, onetime commandant of the Army War College and military historian, launched a rhetorical volley of his own against Obama’s planning in a blistering opinion column in Friday’s Washington Post, summing up the views of his military cohort:
They are embarrassed to be associated with the amateurism of the Obama Administration’s attempts to craft a plan that makes strategic sense. None of the White House staff has any experience in war or understands it. So far, at least, this path to war violates every principle of war, including the element of surprise, achieving mass and having a clearly defined and obtainable objective.
Those are harsh words, but on Sunday Scales made clear he and his fellow retired and still serving military officers are having no second thoughts, chastened by their experience in Iraq. “They think they are being rolled again and don’t want that to happen,” Scales says. “There is a sense that this is a Beltway war. Get very far west from Reston [Virginia] and Gaithersburg [Maryland] and the climate changes dramatically.”
The President’s speech to the nation on Tuesday night may be his last chance to get it right.
If he’s convincing, and wins congressional backing, he’ll get a chance to launch a military attack, with all the perils that entails. If he fails — regardless of what he does following such a defeat — his Administration will be wounded, perhaps mortally, for the rest of his presidency.