President Obama, a ‘tortured genius’
Good leaders must own up to mistakes and adjust their strategy
ASEAL teammate and friend once described the worst type of leader as a “tortured genius.” By this, he did not mean the artist or musician suffering from inspired hysteria, but someone who, no matter how obvious the failing or how fair and valid the criticism, accepts no blame and denies all responsibility. In the mind of such a leader, the rest of the world simply can’t see the “genius” in what they do.
In truth, this type of leader lives in denial of the facts as they are, rationalizing actions and refusing to alter or adapt strategies to win. To such a person, maintaining the illusion that he is right is somehow more important than mission success. We have all known a tortured genius or, perhaps at times, have been one ourselves. Such a leader can be a serious detriment the performance of any team and the chief obstacle to victory.
Over the past week, the world witnessed President Obama rationalize his failure to lead in the fight against the Islamic State, or ISIS. Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, the president insists America’s strategy to defeat ISIS is working. The terrorist attacks in Paris that murdered 130 civilians was merely a “setback.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, an otherwise staunch ally, declared Mr. Obama wrong: ISIS is “not contained.” Never has the president admitted he and his top advisers underestimated the terrorist organization they called “JV.”
At the G20 Summit in Turkey last week, one question from the press captured the essence of many more: “Given the strategy that you are pursuing, and it’s been more than a year now, ISIS’ capability seems to be expanding … . Do you think you really understand this enemy well enough to defeat them and to protect the homeland?” The president scoffed at this, aloof and annoyed that anyone would dare question the genius of his plan or its effectiveness. He maintains, “This has always been a multi-year project” — not a war, not even a conflict. Yet, the Islamic State has made clear they are at war with America, Western Civilization and anyone in the Islamic world who stands in their way.
What is lost on the president has become painfully clear to even one-time supporters and members of his own party: We are at war, and containment will not defeat ISIS, nor will airpower alone. The horrific terrorist attacks in Paris testify to this. Such attacks by ISIS only inspire and embolden Islamic terrorists everywhere, as witnessed in Mali last Friday.
The Obama administration claims there is no military solution to ISIS. They are wrong. The only solution to ISIS is a military solution. The vast territory occupied by the Islamic State provides safe haven from which to plan, support, launch and inspire further terrorist attacks across the globe. ISIS made clear its next target: America. As long as the “caliphate” exists and appears to be winning, young radical Muslim fighters will rally to the cause of jihad from around the world. But the moment they begin to lose — when ISIS fighters die by the tens of thousands and the remnants flee for their lives — that flow will cease to a trickle. The U.S. military stands ready to execute this task. We only lack a commander in chief who will allow them to do so.
At the end of the day, the only meaningful measure of a leader is whether the team — the strategy — succeeds or fails. The president’s current strategy has not and will not defeat ISIS. Even still, determined U.S. military and intelligence personnel in theater and around the world are working tirelessly to hammer ISIS within the constraints placed upon them. But those constraints — no U.S. ground combat role, severely restricted rules of engagement with the impossible goal of zero civilian casualties — prevent us from defeating ISIS. If we wish to create a local Sunni partner force on the ground in Iraq (and Syria), the president must unleash U.S. military power to first reduce the threat ISIS currently poses to them. This does not require re-invasion or a massive ground force. But we must give U.S. military leadership on the ground in Iraq the resources, support and the authority to execute a winning strategy. This requires a belief by the president and his advisers that winning is possible. It requires the recognition that our current strategy has not achieved the desired results, and the willingness to modify that strategy to one that is effective. Under bold leadership determined to accomplish the mission, we can and will win.
Unfortunately for the citizens of the United States, France and Western Europe, for the millions of souls suffering under the murderous reign of ISIS, and to the long-term detriment of U.S. national security, America has a “tortured genius” in the White House. His term cannot end soon enough. Leif Babin and Jocko Willink are former U.S. Navy SEAL officers and co-authors of “Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win” (St. Martin’s Press, 2015).