There Are No Tea Leaves to Read About the “Mosul Plan”

March 12, 2015

A mostly forgotten Arab adversary of American influence in the Mideast, the late Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser, once said “The genius of you Americans is that you make no clear-cut stupid moves, only complicated stupid moves which make us wonder at the possibility that there may be something to them we are missing.”

The Obama administration appears determined to live up to Nasser’s estimation of our strategic acumen.

The latest evidence for this proposition would be the ill-fated affair of the administration’s former battle plan to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from the butchers of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Problems began at the inception when the anonymous but official Central Command (CENTCOM) briefer revealed a plethora of sensitive operational details to reporters, a move described by journalists in their stories as “odd,” “very unusual,” “rare.” The stories provoked a firestorm of criticism from members of Congress, the Iraqis, and within the Pentagon itself which predictably led the administration’s numerous admirers in the media to mobilize and take up a defensive crouch, speculating as to the clever hidden motives for releasing the plan.

The Beltway insider spinning was of little avail. Probably because it is extremely implausible to try to ascribe delphic subtlety to what is empirically a comical example of amateur bungling at multiple levels of execution, namely:

  1. CENTCOM bizarrely reveals operational details to the enemy in a press briefing.
  2. The administration fails to brief the Iraqis a priori about a future Iraqi offensive.
  3. The plan itself signals to the enemy that we desperately do not want to fight, which we subsequently elaborate upon by belittling the martial prowess of the allied forces who will be doing the fighting in anonymous comments.
  4. The administration abruptly abandons our loudly trumpeted, stoutly defended planned offensive as premature and unworkable.
  5. As a denouement, a CENTCOM general has to officially deny that a sudden Iranian-Iraqi offensive against ISIL forces in Tikrit came as a surprise to the United States.

I have no idea what the motives of the administration were here in this comedy of unforced errors. There may have been behind the scenes micromanagement by the White House staff to play a domestic political angle, releasing operational details to create a perception of action against ISIL; or it may be as simple as the natural results garnered from doing strategy-free statecraft by the seat of one’s pants. The administration is currently floating the idea that the problem was that a CENTCOM briefer went rogue, which while possible, should be taken with a very large dose of salt. That the brief was also, in the words of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter “not information that should be blurted out to the press,” is on firmer ground.

The role of the media here has been less than helpful because their best efforts at political damage control are merely rewarding this administration’s poor national security performance and encouraging its continuation. Opting for happy talk when tough analysis and tougher questions were in order does not change the reality for informed observers, whatever the intended effect on the American public. Nor will it engender confidence that the judgment of the media is sufficiently free of political bias to report and analyze news with even a modest degree of objectivity. For example:

  • How does this all look, if you are one of the hard men sitting in the Kremlin, Beijing, or Teheran? Do they see any silver linings working to American advantage here or evidence of hidden strategic genius in play that the American media prefers to discern?
  • How about our allies and friends in London, Paris, Tokyo, Kiev or Amman? Are they reassured about American leadership or are they cringing behind closed doors and assessing their options?
  • Furthermore, what would have been the reaction of our media if a Romney administration had been responsible for this minor debacle? The same suspension of critical judgment and circling of the wagons, or would the stories be a little more scathing?

I’m not suggesting here that a Republican administration would be providing us with some Clausewitzian-Machiavellian strategic magic. Clearly, that is unlikely. However, I can only conclude at this point that a Republican administration might be marginally better at foreign policy if only because the press would be less motivated to play courtier and would hold them accountable far earlier in their administration for the kind of policy embarrassments as we have just seen in the past year. A stumble of this nature would lead at all the major networks and on the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post for days on end long before six years of their tenure had passed. Someone responsible might actually get fired.

Let’s hope the media can adopt a similar standard of realism with the incumbent administration during its remaining time. At worst, some critical feedback might scare senior officials away from impulsively Epimethean policy making. At best, they will take the criticism to heart and seek more frequent advice from foreign policy graybeards and assorted wise men.

 

Mark Safranski is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, LLC. and is a contributor to Pragati: The Indian National Interest. He is the publisher of the national security and strategy group blog, Zenpundit.com.