Attacking Syria: Washington’s Five Emerging War — And Non-War — Parties

As debate heats up, it’s worth keeping track of motives

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Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told Congress Wednesday he believes the U.S. military can achieve the "limited objectives" sought by President Obama's attack plans.

The Pentagon is a five-sided building, so it’s no surprise that since President Obama’s decision Saturday to seek congressional approval for any military strike on Syria, we’ve seen at least five factions sprout in Washington over the merit of taking what the Defense Department euphemistically call “kinetic action.”

It’s important to keep track of such motives. Going to war — which is what it would be, regardless of what some namby-pamby State Department types would like to call it — is the biggest international action a nation can take. So it’s important to note what blocs are helping to drive this debate:

— The anti-interventionists, who don’t want this fight, period. “I don’t see a clear-cut or compelling American interest,” Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky., said Wednesday. “I see a horrible tragedy, but I don’t see that our involvement will lessen the tragedy. I think it may well make the tragedy worse.”

— Those think the President can’t afford the fight because he has choked the U.S. military of the funding needed to even carry out even a relatively puny military campaign. “Today we can afford to launch 30 cruise missile into Syria, but we cannot ignore that such an attack on another country is an act of war,” says Senator Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The state of our military today cannot afford another war. The President has decimated our military by cutting its budget by $487 billion and putting another $500 billion more on the chopping block with his sequestration.”

A House GOP colleague concurs. “The President is again seeking to use military power even while he has accepted nearly a trillion dollars in cuts from our national defense over the last four years,” says Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower subcommittee. Not only does his panel oversee Navy spending, but the Tomahawk-firing destroyers awaiting orders to attack Syria are homeported in his state. “The President’s willingness to use our military without ensuring that it is properly funded,” Forbes says, “should alarm all who view the maintenance of unparalleled American military power as a principal Constitutional duty of our Commander-in-Chief.”

— Those viewing the possibility of a strike through the prism of Obama’s credibility. They fear that his “red-line” warning to Syrian strongman Bashar Assad last year has been growing pinker with every passing day — and ever-fainter with his decision to delay responding by seeking congressional approval first. “If the world doubts our President’s credibility, our nation stands at greater risk because a variety of factors will push and test,” Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Tex., said on the PBS NewsHour. “And that is absolutely part of the danger that we’re in.” (When asked if drawing a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in Syria might affect his credibility if he fails to act, Obama said Wednesday in Sweden that “I didn’t set a red line” and that “my credibility’s not on the line.”)

— The U.S. military, personally. Most of those military officers interviewed, speaking privately, don’t think there is a lot to be achieved in Syria with the sort of “limited, tailored” strike the President wants. Such doubts exist from top to bottom, and could be read clearly in the July letter Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent to Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the armed services committee. “We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action,” Dempsey warned. “Should the regime’s institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.”

— The U.S. military, professionally. But now that Obama has decided he wants to punish Assad, the nation’s top military leaders, including Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, have smartly saluted and declared over two long days of testimony on Capitol Hill that the use of force will accomplish the President’s mission. “Given the limited objectives I’ve received, the answer is, yes, I believe we can make the military strike effective,” Dempsey told the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday.

Funny how the military can flip as neatly as the politicians who order it around. Of course, that’s part of the attraction of being the hammer instead of the carpenter. Amid all the debate, it’s just too bad that the shrouded bodies responsible for the discussion won’t be able to speak up.