According to the Wall Street Journal Online today: “Frustrated by the stalemate in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry has been pushing for the U.S. military to be more aggressive in supporting the country's rebel forces. Opposition has come from the institution that would spearhead any such effort: the Pentagon.
Mr. Kerry and United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power have advocated options that range from an American military intervention to weaken the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to using U.S. special operations forces to train and equip a large number of rebel fighters. Such moves would go far beyond the U.S.'s current engagement.
In recent White House meetings, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel have pushed back against military intervention, said senior officials….
Top policy makers say the rift echoes similarly fraught Clinton administration debates over the conflict in Bosnia two decades ago.
Then-U.N. ambassador Madeleine Albright summed up her frustration with the Pentagon by asking Gen. Colin Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs: "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?"
In a 1995 autobiography in which he recounted the exchange, Gen. Powell said Mrs. Albright was treating American GIs like "toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global game board."
From Gen. Dempsey's perspective, even a limited military operation could embroil the U.S. in a broader regional conflict than advocates realize, these officials say.
"If it weren't for the chairman, you would be right back in Iraq or Afghanistan," a senior defense official said.
Searching for new options, Mr. Kerry has been huddling with retired generals David Petraeus and Jack Keane, architects of the 2007 troop surge in Iraq. The two generals have told Mr. Kerry they believe a military program to train and equip the Syrian rebels, and limited strikes to weaken Mr. Assad, could be effective, according to U.S. officials.”
As this article correctly observes, this argument is a replay of the interagency debate preceding US military intervention into the Balkans in the 1990’s. Military officers are frequently more reluctant than their civilian counterparts to commit the nation’s human treasure to military adventures that are not likely to secure concrete national interests. In part, that may be due to the fact that these senior military officers have personally witnessed and/or borne the very real costs of war.
Even scarier is the notion that Secretary Kerry has been seeking advice from proponents of the 2007 surge strategy in Iraq. What concrete U.S. national interests have been secured at the cost of nearly a trillion dollars from the US Treasury and more significantly the loss of thousands of young American lives and tens of thousands of wounded in Iraq? Iraq is a state that happily ejected American combat troops from its territory, is ruled by a Shi’a sectarian leader with authoritarian tendencies inclined toward Tehran, and (as a result of Baghdad’s political failure to unite the country) is now confronting growing sectarian violence approaching that of the pre-surge levels. So again, what exactly has the US achieved for its enormous investment in blood and treasure?
The same questions must be answered in the case of Syria. What are U.S. national interests that warrant the investment of American lives and treasure? Moreover, as was the case in Iraq, the military operation will likely be the ‘easy’ part of American strategy. But who will move to stabilize Syria (and at what cost) on the day after Assad’s regime has been banished from Damascus? Who will impose stability amongst the inevitable chaos? Who will mediate the political, economic, and military feuds between Syria’s various sectarian factions and outside actors?
Civilian officials, of course, have the right and indeed the obligation to question advice from senior military officers. However, in this case, one can only hope that President Obama heeds the council of his uniformed advisors.
The author is a professor of national security studies at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.