''Can't anybody here play this game?"
That was Casey Stengel, accustomed to managing the skill and power of the New York Yankees in their glory years, crying out in despair and frustration from the dugout of the New York Mets in their woebegone early years.
That could be the ol' perfessor, watching Barack Obama and his gang of sad sacks trying to manage the chaos and confusion in the Middle East, much of it of their own making. It's clear now to nearly everyone that this president and his administration have cornered the market on ineptitude.
Mr. Obama's performance has advanced from wary to scary, from concern over what to do with Iran to actual catastrophe in Iraq. The White House blames the fall of Ramadi, an important city west of Baghdad, squarely on Iraq. No one would confuse an Arab army with Marse Robert's Army of Northern Virginia, or George S. Patton's Third Army that swept across France en route to Berlin in the autumn of 1944, but the Iraqis, who abandoned their weapons and ran to hide in the desert, didn't stumble into catastrophe by themselves.
The facts continue to leak about how ISIS trucks and heavy equipment gathered on the outskirts of Ramadi, cataloged by U.S. intelligence satellites, and no airstrikes were ordered against the convoys. The Pentagon knew what was going on; the offensive against Ramadi was not a surprise.
David Deputla, now retired as the deputy chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, tells Eli Lake of Bloomberg News that pilots flying sorties can see the targets that need immediate attention, but "have to call back [to headquarters] and ask, 'Mother, may I,' before they can engage." It's the way to engage if you're sitting on Pennsylvania Avenue or in front of a computer screen thousands of miles from the scene of battle, but it doesn't do much for soldiers pinned down and searching the skies for a sign of the promised help.
The generals, hobbled by the political strategists at the White House, call this a "dynamic targeting process," and it's not very dynamic and it doesn't have much to do with critical targets, but it is a lot of process. Such timid rules of engagement have drastically reduced the effectiveness of airstrikes. The New York Times counts an average of 15 airstrikes a day against ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq; when President George W. Bush seized the day as the U.S. was faltering in the war in Iraq, the U.S. Air Force launched 800 airstrikes every day. Sen. John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says only 1 in 4 missions actually make a strike against a target.
"If the administration is only going to use airstrikes," says Rep. Devin Nunes of California, chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, "they [will] have to expand what constitutes a target. I have been concerned for a long time that the limited number of targets would lead to the fall of many cities in Iraq. This didn't come as any surprise to me that Ramadi fell."
David Deptula agrees. "The current rules of engagement are intentionally designed to restrict the effectiveness of air power to prevent potential collateral damage. That results in ISIS getting the freedom of action so they can commit genocide against civilians. Does that make any sense?"
Actually, no, but nothing in the Middle East does. President Obama vows war on ISIS, with speeches full of airy promises to drive the barbarians from the field of battle, but ISIS continues to expand its reach and grasp of new territory. For months Iraqi forces deployed to Anbar province have gone to the black market to buy supplies because the supplies promised to them have not arrived.
Six years of determined retreat have reduced American influence in the region to a vapor. Mr. Obama invites top leaders of the region to a summit at Camp David and they all send their regrets. One has to get a manicure, another to buy a stamp, still another to write a letter. They sent a message, but no one got it.
President Obama inherited success in Iraq. He said so himself. "We are leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq," he told the troops at Fort Bragg a little more than two years ago. Nothing recedes like success not exploited.
George Washington understood what happens when a nation is neither feared nor respected. "There is a rank due to the United States among nations which will be withheld if not absolutely lost," he said in 1793, "by the reputation of weakness." Not much to leave as a legacy.