Yesterday the columnist Jeffrey Goldberg reported that Secretary of State Kerry argued, inside the Obama administration, for air strikes on Syrian regime air bases, especially those from which chemical weapons attacks were launched. Here is Goldberg’s account of a Principals’ Meeting last week, after Kerry made his pitch:
It was at this point that the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the usually mild-mannered Army General Martin Dempsey, spoke up, loudly. According to several sources, Dempsey threw a series of brushback pitches at Kerry, demanding to know just exactly what the post-strike plan would be and pointing out that the State Department didn’t fully grasp the complexity of such an operation.
Dempsey informed Kerry that the Air Force could not simply drop a few bombs, or fire a few missiles, at targets inside Syria: To be safe, the U.S. would have to neutralize Syria’s integrated air-defense system, an operation that would require 700 or more sorties. At a time when the U.S. military is exhausted, and when sequestration is ripping into the Pentagon budget, Dempsey is said to have argued that a demand by the State Department for precipitous military action in a murky civil war wasn’t welcome.
While the overall architect of American policy is of course the President, this position by Dempsey is significant--significant because it is nonsensical. If our Secretary of Defense was at this meeting, or our National Security Advisor, this statement should have embarrassed and angered them.
Because the "700 sortie" argument is an old Pentagon line, updated for this particular argument about Syria, that can be translated simply as "I don’t want to." As Goldberg noted, it is impossible to believe that Israel can do three air strikes in Syria (apparently stand-off strikes from beyond Syria’s borders) but the U.S. Air Force cannot do one--until it makes 700 sorties to take down Syrian air defenses. Israel lacks our stealth bombers; Israel does not have the mix of ground to ground or air to ground missiles that we do; Israel lacks the naval strength we have in the Sixth Fleet. For our Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to argue that it is simply too dangerous for us to do anything, anything at all, strikes me as shocking.
This is not a policy argument, and one might conclude that despite our great capabilities we should not do what Kerry is said to have recommended (though I agree with Kerry). But that’s not what Dempsey did; he added to his policy argument a ridiculous military argument that should have been shot down with alacrity. In a better administration, the SecDef would have told him to knock off the policy arguments disguised as military advice, or the National Security Advisor would. Meanwhile those officials, or the President, ought to be seeking less biased and more realistic military advice--an action that would itself teach the current military leadership not to repeat the "700 sorties" line of argument.
In 2007, when President Bush considered whether to bomb the North-Korean-built nuclear reactor in Syria, he asked CJCS Pace about the military issues. Pace told him we could do it, period. The President decided not to, for other policy reasons--and those policy arguments were advanced by the Secretaries of State and Defense, not the uniformed military. That’s the way the system ought to work. But that’s not the way it appears to be working now.