Four-Star Critique

Retired military brass contributes to the growing criticism of the Obama administration's handling of foreign policy.

Retired US Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis (L), former commander of the US Central Command; retired Army Gen. John Keane (C), former vice chief of staff of the Army; and retired Navy Adm. William Fallon (R), former commander of the US Central Command testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on global challenges and US national security strategy on Capitol Hill in Washington,DC on January 27, 2015. AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Don’t announce when you’re going to withdraw troops and don’t broadcast the military options you’ve ruled out if you want to be successful in war.

That’s the message retired U.S. Marine Gen. James Mattis delivered to senators Tuesday, Jan. 27, in a thinly veiled critique of Barack Obama’s administration from a general who was a thorn in the White House’s side when he was on active duty. But now Mattis, beloved by his fellow Marines, is no longer under any pressure to keep his views to himself.

“There is an urgent need to stop reacting to each immediate vexing issue in isolation,” Mattis told a Senate Armed Services Committee panel.

He added: “Notifying the enemy in advance of our withdrawal dates or reassuring the enemy that we will not use certain capabilities like our ground forces should be avoided.”

Mattis’s skepticism about White House policies, especially on Iran, reportedly led to his early departure from U.S. Central Command, which he ran from August 2010 to May 2013. That helped make him a perfect witness for Sen. John McCain, the committee’s new Republican chairman, who has organized a series of hearings this month on national security strategy and global challenges facing the United States.

While the hearings give lawmakers a chance to get expert advice, they also largely serve McCain’s agenda of bashing the Obama administration’s foreign policy. McCain did not attend the Tuesday hearing, as he was in Saudi Arabia paying respects to the family of the late King Abdullah, who died last week.

Appearing with Mattis was another former Centcom commander, retired Adm. William “Fox” Fallon, and retired Gen. Jack Keane, a former Army vice chief who advised the George W. Bush administration during the Iraq war. All agreed that the White House’s foreign policy lacks a strategic framework that could shape U.S. engagement in the world.

As a result, they said, the United States has been lurching from crisis to crisis.

The hearings haven’t always buttressed McCain’s worldviews. Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the committee, noted that last week’s witnesses — Brent Scowcroft, the national security advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter — urged Congress not to move forward with additional sanctions against Iran while nuclear negotiations are ongoing.

Mattis sought to provide a measured critique of Obama’s foreign-policy performance, noting that previous administrations have similarly struggled to define its priorities. And even Keane found fault with the Bush White House, saying he was shocked in December 2001 when the decision was made to go to war in Iraq. He told the panel that he thought the United States should have focused instead on al Qaeda.

Mattis praised the Obama administration for helping to push former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki out of office in August and paving the way for the creation of a more inclusive government. He also applauded the president for visiting Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, describing it as a positive step.

But overall, his remarks and those of his colleagues were sharp attacks against the White House’s handling of national security challenges.

From the fight against the Islamic State to the war in Afghanistan, Mattis made clear that he thinks the Obama administration is risking its chances for success by broadcasting its moves in advance. He said it’s not clear, for example, what long-term political goals the United States is trying to achieve in Iraq and Syria.

“Murky or quixotic political end states can condemn us to entering wars we don’t know how to end,” he said.

Just over a year ago, the White House announced its timeline for withdrawing all but a few U.S. troops from Afghanistan. It plans to leave 9,800 U.S. troops in the country through this year. That number will be halved by the end of 2015, and by the end of 2016 only a small military presence will remain at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

Mattis warned that the “gains achieved at great cost against our enemy in Afghanistan are reversible.” If the United States continues to pull out its troops based on the proposed timeline, he said, it risks the same outcome in Afghanistan as that seen in Iraq last summer, when U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces were overrun by the Islamic State.

In Iraq, the Obama administration has repeatedly ruled out a combat mission for U.S. troops. Instead, they serve as advisors and trainers to the Kurdish and Iraqi security forces. They are only able to leave protected military bases if the risks to their safety are deemed low enough.

By making clear what the United States won’t do, Mattis said, the White House fuels a perception in the Mideast that the United States is starting to disengage. As a result, American influence in the volatile region is at its lowest point in four decades, he said.

He also warned Congress against adding new sanctions against Iran while nuclear negotiations are ongoing and said to hold off unless talks fail. The Republican-controlled Senate needs Democratic support to pass a new sanctions bill, which President Barack Obama has warned he’ll veto if passed.

Meanwhile, Keane delivered a more blunt critique, describing the Obama administration’s policy in the Middle East as a failure.

“The unequivocal explanation is U.S. policy has focused on disengaging from the Middle East, while our stated policy is pivoting to the East,” Keane said.

To support his point, he brought a map that showed the spread of Islamic extremism across the region and into Africa.

He too argued that more U.S. troops should stay in Afghanistan longer. He’d also like to see U.S. troops move closer to the front lines in Iraq.

Keane told Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) that 10,000 troops should deploy to Iraq versus the roughly 2,500 stationed there today.

Graham noted that in 2004 it took 10,000 Marines to retake Fallujah, a city that is one-tenth the size of Mosul, which is controlled today by the Islamic State and which the Iraqi security forces hope to retake with the help of the U.S.-led coalition later this year.

Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen

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