Pentagon backlash: Why are top military leaders attacking Obama’s foreign policy?

Gen. Ray Odierno, the US Army Chief of Staff, is the latest Pentagon official to criticize President Obama's foreign policy. Is that unusual? 

(AP Photo/Hans Pennink)
US Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno is critical of Obama's plans to reduce the size of the US Army. Here, Odierno watches the time clock at an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014, in West Point, N.Y. Army won 47-39.

On Tuesday, Gen. Ray Odierno, the US Army Chief of Staff, publicly questioned President Obama’s plan to reduce the size of America’s ground-combat forces, joining a growing chorus of current and former administration officials speaking out against Obama’s foreign policy.

Speaking at a news conference during the annual meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army, Odierno cited new threats in the world that forestall the shrinking of the Army, as Obama has repeatedly called for.

 “The world is changing in front of us. We have seen Russian aggression in Europe, we have seen ISIS, we have seen increased stability in other places,” General Odierno told the gathered crowd. “So I now have concern whether even going below 490,000 [troops] is the right thing to do or not, because of what I see potentially on the horizon.”

The active-duty Army now has 510,000 members, which military leaders are working to reduce. The Army agreed to cut size of its force to 490,000 due to budget cuts approved in 2011. Further spending battles and cuts means the Army may have to shrink further, to 450,000 or 420,000 members, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire.

Is Odierno’s public criticism unusual?

In fact, not at all: Odierno is the latest official to speak out against Obama’s pledge to keep soldiers out of Iraq as the US works to fight ISIS.

Speaking with CBS This Morning, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, “there will be boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of success in this strategy. And I think that by continuing to repeat that [the US won’t put boots on the ground], the president, in effect, traps himself.”

 “…You just don’t take anything off the table up front, which it appears the administration has tried to do,” Retired Gen. James Mattis told the House Intelligence Committee Thursday, adding, “Specifically, if this threat to our nation is determined to be as significant as I believe it is, we may not wish to reassure our enemies in advance that they will not see American 'boots on the ground.'”

And as CBS News reported, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday that he may recommend to the president deploying combat forces in Iraq.

The growing chorus of officials questioning the president’s policy has some wondering about a “concerted pushback developing in the Pentagon.”

And it turns out it’s not just the Pentagon. A growing number of former top cabinet officials have recently publicly criticized the president’s foreign policy, creating an opportunity for Republicans in the 2014 midterm elections, and potentially creating a credibility crisis for the White House.

A week ago, former CIA director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta published a book, “Worthy Fights,” in which he said Obama “lost his way” on foreign policy, including the president’s failure to enforce a “red line” on chemical weapon use in Syria, rejecting advice to arm Syrian rebels, and approving a full withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2011, thereby creating a power vacuum that led to the rise of ISIS.

Prior to Panetta’s criticism, former Defense Secretary Gates also criticized Obama’s handling of Afghanistan in his memoir, “Duty.”  Regarding the Afghanistan war, the president was “skeptical if not outright convinced it would fail,” Gates writes in his book.

And former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton blamed the president for rejecting advice on arming Syrian rebels, saying that decision ultimately allowed ISIS to flourish.

Is it OK to openly criticize a sitting president?

Some, like the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, have criticized the outspoken officials, writing “this level of disloyalty is stunning.”

But the Post’s Ed Rogers has a different take. None of these individuals are amateurs, lightweights, or greedy for attention, he writes. “They are all distinguished leaders who don’t shoot from the hip or have anything to prove. So when they agree on something, whatever they are telling us should be treated seriously. The world should take notice.”

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