The Pentagon’s War Reluctance

Despite Republican pressure and State Department hawkishness, the Pentagon and the White House remain reluctant to dive deeper into the fight against the Islamic State, wishing to avoid U.S. combat casualties, writes Gareth Porter for Middle East Eye.

By Gareth Porter

The story published in the Washington Post on June 13 shows how the U.S. military service chiefs – who make decisions on war policy in light of their own institutional interests – prefer an inconclusive war with the Islamic State and existing constraints on U.S. involvement, to one with even the most U.S. limited combat role.

The resistance of top U.S. military officials to deepening U.S. military involvement in the war against the Islamic State came in the wake of a major policy debate within the Obama administration following the collapse of Iraqi military resistance in Ramadi.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In that debate, senior State Department officials reportedly supported the option of putting U.S. advisers into Iraqi combat units to direct airstrikes on Islamic State positions and sending U.S. Apache attack helicopters into urban combat situations. But the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, joined top military commanders in opposing that option, the Post story recounted. Dempsey was said to have concluded that the potential gains from such an escalation were not worth the costs in terms of possible U.S. combat losses.

The result of that internal debate was that Obama sent 450 more advisers to Iraq, but only to bases removed from the Islamic State combat zone.

Although President Barack Obama was reported to be keeping future options open, the constraints on the U.S. military effort appear to reflect an alignment between the White House and the U.S. military establishment against a U.S. ground combat role in the battle against the Islamic State.

Obama’s concern to prevent the war against the Islamic State from involving U.S. ground combat troops was clear from the outset. The White House appeared to be guarding against pressure for a combat role by suggesting that the Islamic State is a “deeply-rooted organization” and thus could not be defeated through U.S. military action.

And even after domestic political pressures for a major military action developed with the Islamic State beheading of two Americans, Obama sought to avoid calling the U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State “war,” choosing instead to call them a “counter-terrorism strategy”.

Like many other observers, when the U.S. began its bombing campaign against Islamic State targets last August, I was certain that the bombing wouldn’t have any decisive effect on the Islamic State forces, and feared that the logic of escalation that had operated in the failed wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan would also apply to the war against the Islamic State.

But the U.S. military does not view every war in the same way. The military’s position in regard to a given proposal for war is based on a set of calculations that may be crude but do follow a certain logic. Military leaders are neither disinterested servants of the commander in chief, as portrayed in the official mythology, nor agents of corporate business seeking control over the world’s resources, as the Left has traditionally viewed them.

How Military Views War

Since the modern U.S. national security state emerged early in the Cold War, the posture of the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps toward different proposals for the use of military force has been shaped primarily by their views of the anticipated effect on their primary interests, which are the preservation and advancement of their own institutions.

The interests in question are both material and psychological. They need to ensure that they obtain enough budgetary resources to maintain the health of those institutions, and they need to feel that their roles and missions are still regarded as important.

The differences between how the U.S. military services make decisions about war and how corporations make business decisions are obvious, but they are similar in one fundamental respect: like corporate businessmen deciding whether to invest in a new product line or expand existing operations, the military services chiefs also make calculations about the gains and costs of a new military engagement to their own institutions and to the military as a whole.

The gains and costs in question are mediated by political conditions. The anticipated gains from a proposal for war may include increased defense spending in general or for particular military missions. A less tangible expected gain would be to impress upon public opinion the important role of one of the services.

The calculation of potential losses in a proposed military engagement is focused on casualties to U.S. troops. But the cost of those casualties depends on the political climate in the United States, which is in turn related to the actual course of the war in question. So the military leadership may view large numbers of casualties as tolerable in an early stage of one war but not tolerable at all in the context of a different war.

The military service chiefs recall how public opposition to the Vietnam War shaped the climate of opinion toward major war for more than 15 years in the 1970s and 1980s. They also remember vividly how public support for both the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars eventually evaporated, and they have known that the U.S. public now has little tolerance for the commitment of ground forces in any war. But they believe that they still have enough political support to continue airstrikes against terrorists.

The question the military leaders have asked themselves is whether giving U.S. troops and pilots more dangerous roles in the war against the Islamic State in Iraq is likely to generate more political support or have the opposite effect. Their pessimism on that question is based on the knowledge that such an escalation won’t help defeat the Islamic State.

As a senior Pentagon official told the Post: “We have become very sensitive to the idea that we don’t want to risk lives and limbs if there isn’t a high probability of a payoff.”

The air war in Iraq and Syria is evidently expected to continue indefinitely. But the fact that the U.S. is intervening militarily in an openly sectarian conflict without being able to affect the outcome is a fundamental political problem that is bound to come back to haunt the Obama administration and the U.S. military.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. [This article originally appeared at Middle East Eye.]

11 comments for “The Pentagon’s War Reluctance

  1. Gregory Kruse
    June 24, 2015 at 09:53

    If all concern about the lives and well-being of any number of ordinary people, properties, and history is removed, then the planners of “preventive” war against Russia and China are justified in their intent. Killing and destroying are easy when you have no moral objection or conscience.

  2. Abe
    June 21, 2015 at 23:01

    That “Salafist principality” mentioned by the DoD in 2012 is of course now known as the “Islamic State.” The DoD at the time openly admitted that the opposition’s foreign sponsors supported the creation of such a principality, and clearly ISIS must have had such support to maintain its hold on vast expanses of territory in both Syria and Iraq, while propping up a military machine capable of fighting the combined forces of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Indeed, the DoD’s admissions in this document explain precisely how ISIS has been able to perpetuate its activities throughout the region – with “Western countries, the Gulf States, and Turkey” supporting these efforts.

    Narratives of a US “war on the Islamic State” are meant clearly to obscure this admitted and documented conspiracy, and serve as a means for US troops to directly violate Syrian airspace and territory incrementally until US forces are able to openly begin dismantling the Syrian military and government directly.

    Appeasement and Accommodation are not Options

    The Syrian war is not a localized conflict with limited goals. It is one leg of a much larger agenda to destroy Iran next, then move on to Russia and China. Combined with the Syrian campaign, the West has attempted to create arcs of destabilization across Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and completely encircling China in Southeast Asia.

    What this constitutes is a World War executed through the use of 4th generation warfare. At the same time, the West attempts to seek temporary appeasement and accommodation for itself so that it can more effortlessly advance its plans. Attempts to portray itself as interested in “negotiations” with Iran while it wages a proxy war on its doorstep is a prime example of this.

    The corporate-financier special interests that have hijacked the United States and Europe have essentially declared war on all lands beyond their grasp, as well as on any and all among their own ranks who oppose their hegemonic aspirations.

    The vile conspiracy now openly unfolding in Syria, seeing to its destruction at the hands of terrorists the US is openly backing after claiming for over a decade to be “fighting” is a harbinger of the destruction that complacency and failure to resist will bring all other nations caught in the path of these special interests.

    America Admittedly Behind ISIS “Surge”
    By Tony Cartalucci

  3. Abe
    June 21, 2015 at 22:48

    The “fight against the Islamic State”?
    A “sectarian conflict” in Syria and Iraq?

    What we have here is US government boilerplate masquerading as journalism.

    Apparently, Pillar and Porter never read the comments section at Consortium News.

    Automatic failure, gentlemen, every time.

  4. Anonymous
    June 21, 2015 at 18:04

    The US is not fighting IS because Israel wants the Shia crescent broken and Bashir al-Assad gone.

    The Saudis, Israel and Turkey are all supporting IS and they are being supplied with arms that make profits for the US MIC – wars make profits for the US MIC.

    Following Israel’s orders has been a disaster for the US in a numbers of ways — why would Israel care about any of that when it’s all working out for them according to plan?

  5. jaycee
    June 21, 2015 at 15:29

    Planners in the Pentagon certainly know that the ISIS forces have the means to shoot down Apache helicopters, and that cold fact may be driving the calculations.

    It is known that the Iraq War 2.0 was intended to establish a massive US military presence in that country, from which a series of regime change operations would occur throughout the region. Things did not work out as planned, and now the US is burdened with a schizophrenic policy which appears split between factions determined to continue the regime changes aimed at Iran, Syria, etc, and factions seeking some form of accommodation and stability. The Pentagon surely realizes the absurdity of engaging in major operations against a force which has been armed trained and supplied by nominal allies in the region under the coordination of the CIA.

    The Obama administration made a big mistake in allowing the CIA its bigger role in running foreign policy – from drone assassinations to covert support of proxy forces. The US foreign policy establishment is now almost hopelessly riven by competing power blocs with competing interests.

  6. Wm. Boyce
    June 21, 2015 at 12:54

    ” But the cost of those casualties depends on the political climate in the United States, which is in turn related to the actual course of the war in question.”

    Bingo. The military leaders are politicians, much like their civilian counterparts. The public still has an important role to play, whether its aware of it or not.

  7. Zachary Smith
    June 20, 2015 at 17:20

    …who make decisions on war policy in light of their own institutional interests…

    It’s my view that this is a very important consideration. Right now the US military is rolling in money. They get to play with unbelievable sums, and with virtually no accountability. Allowing the contractors to make the calls causes those companies to prosper, and increases the chances of an after-military retirement job.

    That incompetence and complacency must be considered along with the current Congressional attitudes of Private Is Better. Shut down systems dating back to the Revolution, and allow those Contractors to do their thing.

    It isn’t working out very well.

    Consider the F-35. Extremely high priced. Doesn’t work. Untouchable because the Contractors spread the work throughout the nation. Even the otherwise sensible Bernie Sanders hypes it to the skies. Even if they do somehow get the thing to be half-way reliable, it’ll be a very average weapons system. At best! At worst, it’ll be the modern equivalent of the Brewster Buffalo.

    The reason for the failure of the program is something called “concurrency”. This means you start building the airplane before there is any evidence the bugs are out. The starting assumption is that the design was perfect. That’s not how it works in the real world. The F-35 engine is stressed to the max, and parts keep breaking off. To get the necessary thrust for this flying sow of an aircraft it must run hot. Easy prey for heat-seeking missiles.

    On to the Ford class aircraft carriers. Here the navy was totally spitting into the wind. Big carriers are becoming easy targets for way too many classes of weapons. They’ve simply put too many eggs into too-few and too-vulnerable baskets. The new Chinese ICBM threat to carriers means (to me) that the only real defense is to stay out of range.

    But needless to say, the geniuses have used the “concurrency” here too.

    The launching system is a new-fangled “electromagnetic” affair. It doesn’t work with a bit of reliability. But the carrier is already finished, and going back to the old method would be impossibly expensive – if it could be done at all. The ship also has a new-fangled landing system. it doesn’t work reliably either. The radar doesn’t work.

    Who does this all this benefit? Only the contractors. They’re making out like bandits.

    But suppose we need to actually fight a war. Our “stuff” is getting old. Other nations have been building genuine operating weapons rather than focusing on enriching their contractors and satisfying local “libertarian” politicians.

    So I’m of a mind that one reason the Pentagon is becoming increasingly reluctant to get into military confrontations is their fear that we’d get our *** kicked. Running a bluff for as long as possible makes a lot of sense in a situation where you don’t have any trust in your weapons being able to prevail.

    Lots of people are talking about the US effort to put missile systems on Russia & China’s doorstep. When the Soviets did it during the Cuban Missile Crisis it was an act of desperation in the face of rapidly mounting Soviet inferiority in missiles.

    I’d offer the suggestion that what the US is doing now with the insane moves the neocons are making may be at least partly based on the same desperation. We’ve wiped out the US industrial base – shipped it overseas to enrich a few wealthy b*stards, leaving growing instability and poverty at home. We’ve supported the shi*tty little apartheid state of Israel to the point of damaging our standing everywhere in the world. We’ve gotten ourselves into terrible financial shape because of all the tax-cutting and waste. Add to all that the prospect of grossly inadequate weapons systems.

    The Empire may be flirting with nuclear war for several reasons.

    • Peter Loeb
      June 21, 2015 at 06:36


      Gareth Porter writes, “military chiefs…who make decisions on war
      policy in light of their own institutional interests…”

      Gabriel Kolko wrote an incisive analysis involving this very point and
      documenting that it is in fact civilian decisions which are of primary
      import in these matters.It is called THE ROOTS OF AMERICAN
      Specifically, this means the President and the National Security Council.
      To these central bodies the military has essentially advisory functions
      and these functions have grown over the years. They remain
      advisory as they are portrayed in Mr. Porter’s article above.

      It seems that the US is involved in a kind of “mission creep” which
      will not always be under the ultimate civilian decision-making power
      of this administration. A new executive whether Democratic or
      Republican may—doubtless will—draw other conclusions.

      For the most part one can only agree with the comments of
      Zachary Smith. Naseer Aruri’s book DISHONEST BROKER: THE
      US ROLE IN ISRAEL AND PALESTINE sheds light on this
      relationship. ( It stops at about the year 2,000 but examines
      in detail policies of the previous 35 years with criticism not
      only of the US but also of the former “PLO”—now the “PA”—-
      which it accuses of “occupation by consent.”

      It does not seem that the umbilical relationship between the
      US and Israel will end in the forseable future. The US-ISRAELI
      relationship is complex and involves many world- wide concerns.
      For example, the US as a “permanent member” of the UN
      Security Council is able to block UN examinations of crimes
      committed by Israel, the establishment of a Mideast Nuclear
      Free Zone, the consideration of the treatment of childfren
      in war (a recent decision by the General Secretary gave
      carte blanche to Israel) and so forth.

      Meanwhile Palestinians continue to be murdered, Israeli
      settlements continue to be planned and built, Palestinian
      homes are demolished and the elimination of the Palestinian
      people continues in serve to Zionist colonization which
      insists on exclusive Jewish control.

      —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA USA

  8. Mark
    June 20, 2015 at 11:40

    Regarding military leaders as “agents of corporate business” being the left’s incorrect traditional view — this suggests that military leaders start wars for their own sake, which may be true but only to a certain degree, and that would be a small degree or no degree on the part of some military leaders.

    Without a gain of “profit” or benefit from war, corporations and politicians would not be able to justify backing the wars tacitly or otherwise, nor would anyone else unless they are sadists for death and destruction while their countrymen suffer under financial hardship as they pay for these non-productive wars, thereby weakening the country the very same military is supposed to protect. To survive on war alone would be criminal, at least right now we have “America’s interests” to keep us “legal” in our own warped minds.

    The US invasion of Mid-East post 9/11 results from a composite of interests including those who seek military glory while simultaneously procuring future funds through the self-fulfilling prophesy of fostering or creating necessary wars in perpetuity — the epitome of self-centered psychopathy concerned with the glory of justifying one’s own existence through the needless killing of others.

    The overall composite groups that realize the largest “benefits of war” are of course the MIC and politicians who receive bribes through corporate campaign funds (these days), the banks and IMF work hand in hand through many of our foreign engagements to wrestle the rights to resources from foreign peoples control and benefit — only to produce corporate profits — they think nothing of people being killed so they can profit – 1953 Iran and throughout the M-E, and all through South America over decades.

    A big part of what made the 2014 US backed Ukrainian coup palatable (after having spent 5 billion US tax dollars to that point), to all these same interests were again the bank interests and the resources to be commandeered for corporate profits — the US Empire is a composite, not just military actions for their own sake.

    In the Mid-East we have Israel and our love of oil. We’ve tried to marry the undue influence Israel’s lobby has over our politicians with our love of oil. We fight Israel’s pre-planned wars to serve their purposes at our expense (Yinon plan) but the MIC does benefit along with the oil bandits (or is it corporations?) — all while Israel claims to want peace and periodically makes excuses to slaughter a couple thousand Palestinian Arabs in Gaza only to steal more land in the West Bank — a very strange and criminally symbiotic relationship between the US and Israel…

    Sorry to say the pro-Israel media is another industry that perceives a gain of some sort through all of this — advertising dollars and select news tips from the government — without profit there would be no logical reason for the mass-media to criminally mislead Americans with a steady stream of propaganda intended to manipulate our sentiment towards accepting and condoning Israel’s pre-planned war crimes with the US as proxy while aiding corporate/MIC plunder. And neither those plans nor crimes of Israel’s, are ever discussed among the major “US” news networks.

    This “ruling class” culture of ours, centered in DC, is trying to rule the world — is completely out of control and operating well outside domestic and international law!

  9. Dfnslblty
    June 20, 2015 at 10:28

    Reads like the author is in favour of bigger war against west Asia;
    Most citizens are not of like mind.

    Stop the Immoral and Illegal Wars!

    • Gregory Kruse
      June 24, 2015 at 09:40


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