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‘It’s not our fault, it’s not our fight — and we can’t fix it’

Analysis: In Iraq, the U.S. military won’t support intervention without political reform

By most accounts Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld Jr. is an easygoing man, not given to issuing fiery pronouncements. But the Navy's four-star, a former aerospace engineer and F-14 pilot, who also happens to be the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, can be uncomfortably blunt. 

Speaking at a meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army last September, Winnefeld delivered an unwelcome message, telling his audience of influential Army officers that their beloved service would no longer be needed for fighting long wars. The battles of Iraq and Afghanistan, which lasted eight and 14 years, respectively, were things of the past, he said.

His audience got the message, but they felt betrayed. After serial worldwide deployments to fight the “global war on terrorism” (and after suffering more than 8,000 casualties), the Army was being rewarded by having its budget cut. Worse yet, the budget ax was being wielded by one of their own, Joint Chiefs Chairman and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey — Winnefeld’s boss. 

“Marty and I both would say that the nation needs to keep the capacity to defeat another nation on the ground,” Winnefeld confirmed to his listeners, “but we don’t see that as being a long fight.” He then authored the chilling bottom line: “We can’t afford it.” 

Winnefeld’s message didn’t make it onto the front pages of the nation’s newspapers, but it rippled through the U.S. military, where commanders broadly agreed with his views against continued overseas adventures, but took strong exception that his pronouncement should lead to military austerity.

Even so, following Winnefeld’s address, each of the services began to calculate the toll this new dispensation would have on the number of brigades, ships and aircraft under its command. 

The grumbling was nearly audible. 

“It seems like the budget is pushing the mission,” one Army officer told me in the wake of the speech, “and not the other way around.” 

But what is most shocking about Winnefeld’s message is not that more modest appropriations will inevitably reshape the size of the military, but that the implications of the message have not been grasped in Congress, which is where the budget cuts are being enacted.

Last week, as militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fought their way toward Baghdad, a trio of Senate Republicans — John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio — harshly criticized the Obama administration for ruling out the deployment of military units to buck up the Iraqi government. 

“I don’t think it’s wise for the commander in chief to step forward and immediately begin to rule options out,” Rubio said. “You should not be going around announcing what you won’t do.” 

The nation’s military’s leaders remained unfazed. “Some people just don’t want to hear what we’re saying,” a retired senior Army officer told me this week. “There’s just no appetite for us getting reinvolved in this mess. We made a lot of sacrifices in getting this right, and when we left the Iraqis screwed it up. Then too, if the Congress wants us to do this, they can vote us the money. Because right now, we just don’t have it.” 

Nor is there any desire among military leaders to engage in what many view as an escalating conflict between Sunnis and Shias. The Army officer with whom I spoke scoffed at the notion. “We should work to prevent a Sunni-Shia war,” he said, “but the last thing we need to do is plop our soldiers into the middle of it.” He then concluded with a well-worn Pentagon phrase: “It’s not our fault, it’s not our fight, and we can’t fix it.”  

This officer’s views reflect those of most U.S. military commanders. Even before Winnefeld’s pronouncement, the Joint Chiefs had dug in their heels in opposing new deployments to the Middle East, with Dempsey taking a behind-the-scenes role in opposing an August 2013 call for airstrikes to degrade Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities. Since then, it’s become increasingly clear that the military has little appetite for getting involved in new interventions, no matter what the crisis. 

But that doesn’t mean the U.S. military isn’t concerned about the events of the past three weeks. The military crisis in Iraq’s western, mostly Sunni, Anbar province is uniquely felt among former Marines who fought there. But even among them, and particularly those troopers of the I Marine Expeditionary Force — who kick-started the Sunni Awakening in the late summer of 2006 — a military intervention would be useless without U.S. insistence that the government of Nouri al-Maliki enact reforms that would empower Iraq’s Sunni population. 

While insisting that “ISIS must be crushed” (ISIS is another name for ISIL), retired Marine Col. Mike Walker argued that the U.S. needs to accept the “stark reality” that “this crisis is the direct result of the systemic persecution of the Arab Sunni by the Maliki regime. They are the aggrieved party, and until they are offered a just way forward, there will be no peace.” 

Former Marine Maj. Patrick Maloy, who once served as a key intermediary with Anbar’s tribes, agrees. As ISIL was overrunning Anbar last week, Maloy texted me his concerns, then expressed them bluntly in a telephone conversation. “Maliki is exactly the wrong guy, which is what we [in the military] have been saying all along,” he said. “No one listened.”

Maloy’s views, while harsh, are repeated by currently serving military officers, as well as those with whom he served. “We need to understand that most Sunnis reject a future with Maliki as a quasi dictator,” Walker wrote in an email on Tuesday. 

No one in the upper reaches of the U.S. military hierarchy would openly oppose deploying U.S. troops should the president order it. And no senior military officer would ever claim that support of U.S. policies is conditioned on the commander in chief’s willingness to make difficult political decisions — like replacing Maliki. But in the case of an Iraq reintervention, the voices of those military officers whose views help shape American policy have been clear: A decision to intervene must take into account a budget that has placed military preparedness under the knife. 

Nor, as military officers are quick to add, does the U.S. military leadership support a policy that makes common cause with those who, like Iran and its Shia proxies, are responsible for shedding American blood during the Iraq War. In this case, it’s not only McCain, Graham and Rubio who have failed to listen, but also Secretary of State John Kerry. Last week, Kerry told reporter Katie Couric that the U.S. is “open to working with Iran” against the extremists in Iraq. That was news to the military, which slapped back.  

Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said that he’d read Kerry’s comments, but that there was “absolutely no intention and no plan to coordinate military activities between the United States and Iran.” The public slapdown of Kerry shook official Washington, which wondered at the competence of an administration that seemed incapable of shaping a unified policy. But at least for the military’s part, there seemed clear unanimity — against “boots on the ground” and against cooperating with either Iran or the militias it funds in Iraq. 

“I’m talking for the Pentagon here,” Kirby told reporters. “If you want to get a better sense of the State Department’s take, you should call our colleagues there.” 

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