White House Taken Aback by New Defense Secretary’s “Team America” Meeting in Kuwait

An adult enters the room, and the ‘White House is taken aback.’ Somebody needs to take this White House ‘aback.’


White House Taken Aback by New Defense Secretary’s “Team America” Meeting in Kuwait

The Obama White House staff and National Security Advisor were taken aback this week, when newly confirmed Defense Secretary Ashton Carter convened a meeting of all top Middle East military commanders and ambassadors to do a thorough and frank review of the progress of the war against the Islamic State (ISIL).

This was the first such comprehensive assessment session since President Obama formally launched military operations by the United States and a coalition of 60 European and Arab partners against ISIL in August 2014. And according to some Washington sources, it was the first sign that Carter would be an independent voice to the White House.

President Obama’s last Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, was fired, late last year, after he sent a confidential memo to National Security Advisor, Dr. Susan Rice, criticizing the Administration’s failure to develop a comprehensive diplomatic strategy for dealing with the Syrian government. Carter was selected as Hagel’s replacement, in part, because he was considered less politically independent and more likely to toe the White House policy line, even if it meant breaking with the top Pentagon generals and admirals.

The convening in Kuwait of what Carter described as “Team America,” was seen by some top Obama aides as a disturbing sign that he might be more independent-minded than anticipated, according to White House sources.
The session was, according to one Washington insider, “extraordinary and unprecedented.”

While such closed-door conversations often occur in Washington and at the Pentagon “tank,” the participation in the Kuwait session was broad. In addition to Gen. Lloyd Austin, the commander of the US Central Command, the 25 participants included: Gen. Philip Breedlove, Commander-in-Chief of NATO and head of the European Command; General David Rodriguez, commander of Africa Command; Gen. Joseph Votel III, commander of the US Special Operations Command; Lt. Gen. Ray Thomas, head of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC); Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, commander of Special Operations for Centcom; Lt. Gen. James Terry, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve; retired Gen. John Allen, President Obama’s special envoy for the coalition against the Islamic State; Brett McGurk, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran; Douglas Silliman, Ambassador to Kuwait; Joseph Westphal, Ambassador to Saudi Arabia; Barbara Leaf, Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates; Alice Wells, Ambassador to Jordan; and Robert Beecroft, Ambassador to Egypt.

According to accounts of the meeting, there was no Centcom briefing to start the session. It was a broad-ranging give-and-take, aimed at giving Carter, just six days on the job as Secretary of Defense, a frank and even contradictory assessment of the state of the conflict.

Col. W. Patrick Lang, a retired Army Special Forces officer, who went on to serve as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency for the Middle East and as the head of all of DIA’s human intelligence activities, offered a cautionary note. “Were the participants truly candid with the new secretary? Did they present him with the truth, as they saw it, or did they attempt to present a `good news’ picture that is not an accurate state of the conflict? During the Vietnam war, President Lyndon Johnson conducted such battlefront reviews, and the commanders gave him a false, overly optimistic picture.” Col. Lang concluded that he “hoped” that the session with Secretary Carter was different.

But he cautioned that plans for an Iraq Army-led assault on the ISIL stronghold of Mosul—the second largest city in Iraq—in April or May of this year, was already based, in his judgment, on an overly optimistic view of the fighting capacity of the Iraqi Army, the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Shi’ite militias, backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Buttressing Col. Lang’s concerns, the US Army War College issued a study by two retired US Army officers on Feb. 24, reporting that Army officers frequently lied to their superiors, including about the actual state of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The publication of the study this week followed the release last year of a White Paper by US Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, warning of a serious decline in ethics within the service.

Coming out of the Kuwait “Team America” six hour review session, Secretary Carter refused to rule out recommending, at some future time, that US combat troops are needed to defeat the Islamic State. “We need to be convinced that any use of our forces is necessary, is going to be sufficient, [and] that we’ve thought through not just the first step but the second step and the third stop so that we—if we do ask you to do something—that it’s going to succeed and it makes sense and… it is necessary to take the risk that you’re taking.”
Carter also said that the fight against ISIL is “very complicated” and “It is a problem that has an important military dimension, but it’s not a purely military problem—it’s a politico-military problem.” He singled out the sophisticated social media operations of ISIL, which have fueled continuous recruitment from around the region and the globe.

Carter’s use of the “politico-military” concept, emphasizing the need for strong diplomacy, mirrored the Chuck Hagel memo of Oct. 2014 that led to his ouster.

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