The Wall Street Journal has a story today on the division in the administration over greater intervention in Syria. The internal divide, we are told, pits Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Ambassador Samantha Power, who want to do more to train and arm the Syrian opposition and possibly support them with air strikes, against Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who argue, in essence, for inaction.
The most significant sentence in the article? “It isn’t clear where Mr. Obama stands.” That, in fact, is the nub of the problem. The fact that the Pentagon is opposed to intervention isn’t terribly surprising–the Pentagon has either been opposed to, or skeptical of, just about every foreign military intervention since Vietnam with the exception of Afghanistan and Iraq post-9/11. And sometimes more caution has been warranted–something, alas, that Pentagon leaders, both civilian and military, lost sight of during the planning for the Iraq invasion. But at other times–e.g., the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s–the Pentagon has been overly cautious and civilian leaders were right to override military objections.
But that’s only possible when you have leadership from the president. In this case you don’t. Which is why the Defense Department has been able to get away with shoddy arguments such as this one: “If it weren’t for the chairman, you would be right back in Iraq or Afghanistan,” a senior defense official told the Journal. Huh? Is anyone–anyone–proposing sending 100,000-plus ground troops to Syria? Or any ground troops at all? Not that I’ve heard. This is a totally bogus argument but one that no doubt resonates with a president who won office in no small part on the strength of his opposition to the conflict in Iraq.
What the cautious leadership of the Pentagon is losing sight of is a point that has been made to me by a number of active-duty military officers: namely, that there is not only danger but a great opportunity in Syria. We have the potential to do great damage Hezbollah, the Quds Force, and al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria, three of the most potent anti-American terrorist organizations in the world. The Free Syrian Army is eager to fight all three groups if we would only provide them the arms and training to do so. If the U.S. were to use its airpower, that would truly provide an opportunity to wreak havoc among our enemies while running scant risks ourselves: Syrian air defense could be quickly disabled and as long as we don’t put troops on the ground (aside from a few Special Operators and intelligence operatives) we would be unlikely to suffer any casualties.
But that is a course of action that would require more boldness and decisiveness than we have seen from the Oval Office at any time since the Osama bin Laden raid nearly three years ago.