Rules of Enragement

During a discussion over the merits of Obama’s presidency the other night, my correspondent heatedly insisted that the military hates Obama and that a major reason for this is the changes he’s made to the Rules of Engagement or ROE, which spell out when and how US military forces may “engage with” (i.e. open fire on) enemy forces. It was my friend’s opinion that under Obama, these have become more restrictive, in essence allowing the enemy (e.g. Taliban or ISIL combatants) greater latitude before US forces could deem returning fire justified.I researched the broader (the military hates Obama) claim, and this specific (ROE) claim and I would like to point out the following:

First of all, despite how much control you might think a president has, he (or she) doesn’t usually have any direct say in such details as ROE. That’s what generals and diplomats are paid to do. In the region in question, it was McCrystal and, later, Patraeus who developed those, based on their knowledge of counter insurgency and the intricate political and military workings of the region. Obama’s role in this amounts to, perhaps, hearing briefs on them, but, probably not much more than signing off on them.

Secondly, as of January of this year, the ROE have actually become LESS restrictive. For example, whereas before US troops had to actually see hostile intent (someone had to shoot at them before they could return fire, say), current ROE in Afghanistan allow them to fire on someone who’s doing nothing more than wearing an ISIL T-shirt.
What’s telling, however, is that in spite of this change, nearly all of the sites that come up when you do search for “Obama” and “ROE” are historically right-wing mouthpieces (e.g. Washington Times, Fox News, Breitbart, &c), repeating the clearly specious claim that Obama has made things more dangerous for our troops. What they conveniently omit is that Generals McCrystal and Patraeus both had more restrictive ROE, which they based on the their experience that showed counter-insurgency or COIN operations don’t use the same calculus as all-out combat. Expending huge resources to kill just a few of the enemy makes you look weak in their eyes. And even if you take out many of them, because these are “locals”, the more you kill, the less support you have among the population and, consequently, the better it is for your enemy. Sometimes, you “win” more (or lose less) by not fighting. At least not directly.

In fact, Obama ordered more drone strikes during his first month in office than did GWB during his entire presidency. That is to say that, rather than send troops into harms way, Obama has opted to use alternative methods. You may question (as I do) the morality of doing that on other grounds, certainly. But, in terms of trying to limit troops exposure to danger, I think Obama has done a better job than he’s being given credit for.

This brings me to the broader claim that the troops hate Obama. While “hate” is a rather strong word, it seems that Obama does indeed enjoy the lowest approval ratings. among the military, of any president in recent memory. But, on closer examination, this has nothing to do with ROE or anything about soldiering or military strategy. It has more to do with career choice, gays, and the role (and treatment) of women in the military.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Military Times, The main gripe you hear from those service persons who voice disapproval of President Obama is that their career opportunities and benefits — promotions, pay increases, posting preferences, &c — aren’t coming as often or as easily as they once did. One article even used the term “military EMPLOYMENT” (as opposed to military service) when describing the elevated levels of dissatisfaction. In other words, this is about job dissatisfaction, rather than matters of foreign policy, rules of engagement, or the price of tea in Mosul.
The other gripe is about the change in the military policy toward gays. And, as it happens, there’s a pretty clear divide in terms of who cares and who doesn’t. Most of the grumbling on this point comes from those who have been in the military the longest. You don’t hear it so much from newer, younger men and women. And, when pressed, regardless of career longevity, most if not all will tell you that it has made little or no difference to those who aren’t gay.

Coincident with this is the lifting of restrictions on women in combat roles. Women can now fly combat missions in fighter aircraft, and participate in combat on the ground. Those who object say that it distracts the men who, they claim, will “instinctively” try to protect the women first. Most, however, quickly point out that women have always been in combat zones: this is just a different way to be in those zones.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, is the reaction to Obama’s crackdown on sexual assault in the military.   Obama has instituted a very strict, zero-tolerance approach to this and the “old boys” don’t like it one bit.  Their claim is that it has made their work environment uncomfortable, that the flow of communication among co-workers is hampered by the sense that saying the wrong thing will land you in hot water more easily now.   Try as I might (and I have to admit, I’m not trying all that hard) I just can’t feel alot of sympathy for their “discomfort”.   Incidents of rape and sexual misconduct have, for too long, gone unreported or the accuser has wound up being assaulted by their rapist and then by the military justice system seeking to make the matter go away without holding anyone accountable.   That has changed and continues to change and it comes as no surprise that the ol’ boys don’t like the new rules  one bit.  Small wonder they hate the guy who has spoiled their fun and their “workplace camaraderie”.

The military has changed a great deal over the past two or three decades, both in terms of its mission and composition. Some of the larger changes have come during if not as a direct result of Obama’s administration.   Change is never comfortable and anyone who has been a part of any large organisation undergoing major changes knows these are always accompanied by much grumbling and dissatisfaction among those who preferred the “old ways” of doing things, who want things to remain the way they “always were”.   The same hold true for the military.   Their disapproval of Obama can generally, if not entirely be summarised as resistance to change.   Blaming Obama for changes in ROE, or saying the troops hate him for being a “bad CIC” are simply unsupportable by fact. This of course doesn’t stop right-wing pundits, repeating lies big and small,  as often often as it takes until they are accepted as truth.

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