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The rift between Obama and his generals on ISIS

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

There's no mistaking what President Obama's Wednesday speech at MacDill Air Force Base was: a gigantic slap in the face to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey. But to be fair, Dempsey slapped first when he publicly dissented from the administration's position on deploying combat troops to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Obama's latest speech shut him down.

The font of the disagreement was Dempsey's Tuesday testimony at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, during which he said he'd "recommend" a US combat deployment to fight ISIS under certain circumstances. In a short, fiery portion of his Wednesday remarks — the above video — Obama restated his opposition to this plan in no uncertain terms. "I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq," the president said definitively.

But this isn't just about a few stray remarks from Dempsey. Obama's comments reveal a profound fault line between the president and the military on the use of force and the fundamental theory behind Obama's war against ISIS.

Remember Afghanistan?

US soldier helicopter Afghanistan SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

An American soldier in a helicopter over Afghanistan. Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

Tension between Obama and the armed forces on troop deployments is nothing new. Back in 2009, when Obama was trying to figure out what to do about the war in Afghanistan, top military officials demanded a troop-intensive counterinsurgency plan well before Obama was ready to commit to it.

Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars has the goods here. "Not only General [Stanley] McChrystal but General [David] Petraeus and others, including Admiral [Michael] Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, had kind of piled on: 'Well, this is the way we should do it,'" Woodward said in an interview with NPR.

The White House went, according to Woodward, "ballistic." According to his reporting, "they felt they were being boxed in or really kind of cornered by the uniformed military." The Obama administration eventually settled on committing fewer troops than the military wanted  but more than Vice President Joe Biden's limited counterterrorism plan called for, ultimately satisfying no one.

Obama is afraid of Afghanistan 2.0 in Iraq and Syria

Afghanistan special forces JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

Afghan special forces in Kabul. Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

There's a decent chance the Afghanistan experience explains what happened this week. According to the Washington Post, the general in charge of the Middle East theater, Lloyd Austin, had asked for ground troops and got shot down by Obama personally. That, together with Dempsey's comments, might have the White House worrying about a replay of 2009.

So they reacted forcefully. After Dempsey's comments, a Pentagon spokesman sent an email to reporters essentially correcting the chairman, saying that Dempsey "believes the current strategy to counter [ISIS] is appropriate" and wasn't recommending a combat deployment. The White House Press Secretary told reporters that Dempsey was talking about a "hypothetical situation," and reaffirmed that Obama "will not deploy ground troops in Iraq and Syria."

Then, the next day, Obama said the same thing in even stronger terms. This looks an awful lot like a concerted White House effort to prevent the military from pushing them into an escalation they oppose.

Obama vs. the military on ISIS

Iraqi troops MOHAMMED SAWAF/AFP/Getty Images

Iraqi troops training. Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images

It helps, though, that Obama outlined why he opposed a troop deployment in his Wednesday speech. That shows that Obama isn't just afraid of the political consequences of troop escalation, but also the policy ones. Basically, Obama wants to avoid another disaster in Iraq. Here's the critical portion of the speech:

After a decade of massive ground deployments, it is more effective to use our unique capabilities in support of our partners on the ground so they can secure their own country's future. And that's the only solution that will succeed over the long term.

We'll use our air power. We will train and equip our partners. We will advise them and we will assist them. We will lead a broad coalition of countries who have a stake in this fight. Because this is not simply America versus [ISIS] — this is the people of the region versus [ISIS].

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan prove that the massive ground forces can't keep insurgencies down. The American invasion of Iraq didn't destroy ISIS. If anything, it gave birth to it. And the nearly decade and a half long occupation of Afghanistan has failed to destroy either al-Qaeda or the Taliban. As a result, Obama's view isn't just that combat troops are risky. It's that the record suggests they actually wouldn't help that much.

Instead, Obama proposes that the US support reliable local forces. While American troops will eventually have to come home, Iraqi troops conveniently live in Iraq. So Obama wants to train, supply, and assist them — but not take their place on the front lines.

This really does look like a good-faith disagreement with the military, which appears to have a rosier view of America's ability to help conduct counterinsurgency operations against ISIS in Iraq.

Are they both wrong?

President Obama (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Obama's position isn't unreasonable. A 2009 paper by Yale political scientist Jason Lyall and Colonel Isaiah Wilson III, a West Point professor, looked at a dataset of 286 insurgencies between 1800 and 2005. They found that, since World War I, counterinsurgents have tended to lose and foreign occupying troops have a particularly bad success record when fighting local insurgencies.

Given America's history in Iraq, and the fact that Iraq's Prime Minister opposes the use of American combat troops, it wouldn't be surprising if Iraqis treated American combat troops like an occupying force.

So it's perfectly reasonable for Obama to believe that sending ground troops to Iraq wouldn't guarantee ISIS's defeat. But this analysis seems to imply that, in general, defeating a group like ISIS will be very difficult. This makes the president's commitment to eventually "destroy" ISIS somewhat puzzling.

Obama himself has argued that political problems, not the sheer military ineffectiveness of the Iraqi army, is fueling ISIS's strength, and neither he nor anyone else has a feasible plan for fixing the Iraqi government. According to an anonymous member of Congress quoted in the Huffington Post, "The CIA thinks that it is impossible to train and equip a force of pro-Western Syrian nationals that can fight and defeat [Bashar al-]Assad, al-Nusra [Syria's al-Qaeda franchise], and ISIS." The CIA has been wrong before, of course, but independent evidence also paints a pretty grim picture.

This doesn't mean that ISIS is invincible. They're far from it. Rather, it means that destroying ISIS outright — rather than severely weakening its ability to hold territory and launch attacks — may be outside of America's power.

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