Parsing Dempsey’s Syria Advice

Is he more Michael Mullen or more Colin Powell?

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(Aleppo Media Center AMC via AP)
Buildings damaged by Syrian government airstrikes and shelling, in the Salah al-Din neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria.

On Tuesday of this week Chris Carroll from Stars and Stripes reported on a letter from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey to Congress outlining five military options for dealing with the situation in Syria. The five options as reported by Carroll are:

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

  • The least involved – a train, advise and assist mission – would require no U.S. troops to be directly involved with fighting as they operated outside Syria and delivered supplies and training, Dempsey said. At an estimated $500 million annually, it could raise opposition fighters' capabilities but carries a risk that extremists could gain access to U.S. weapons.
    • A second option, limited stand-off strikes, would target "high-value regime air defense, air, ground, missile and naval forces as well as the supporting military facilities and command nodes," with strikes launched outside Syria. "Depending on duration, the costs would be in the billions," Dempsey wrote. Although attacks would degrade Syrian regime capabilities over time, they could spark retaliatory attacks and endanger civilians, he wrote.
      • A third option, establishing a no-fly zone, would go further, taking out Syrian air defenses to control the skies throughout the country. Because U.S. aircraft would be required to fly over Syrian airspace, the risk to U.S. troops would be higher, Dempsey said. The no-fly zone would cost $500 million upfront and up to $1 billion a month to maintain, he said.
        • The U.S. military could also establish buffer zones to protect the borders of Turkey or Jordan, or to protect Syrian civilians, Dempsey wrote. Doing so would require partial no-fly zones and would carry many of the same risks and costs.
          • The most complex option Dempsey outlined – controlling chemical weapons – would require a no-fly zone, air and missile strikes and thousands of troops on the ground. Doing so would cost more than $1 billion a month, he said, adding: "Risks are similar to the no-fly zone with the added risk of U.S. boots on the ground."
          • I've previously discussed options for intervening in Syria on this blog here and here, so in this post I am not so much interested in getting into deep detail about the particulars of what Dempsey outlined. Rather, I thought I would place the General's comments into the context of perspectives on the use of force by two of his predecessors.

            [See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

            Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs before he became secretary of State, is famous in defense circles for his corollary to the so-called Weinberger Doctrine. (Weinberger's considerations for the use of force were that American forces should not be used unless (1) vital national interests were at stake; (2) clear objectives for the use of force were stated; (3) the military was allowed to win; (4) congressional and public support existed for the intervention; (5) the intervention's purposes and objectives were monitored and adjusted; and, finally, (6) force should be used only as a last resort.) Powell added that U.S. forces should intervene decisively and use as much force as necessary in order to win wars quickly and to reduce the possibility of American casualties.

            For his part, retired Adm. Mike Mullen, also a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, in a speech at the Kansas State University in March 2010, disagreed somewhat with Powell. Mullen laid out three considerations for the use of American force: (1) that such uses should not, and perhaps cannot, be the last resort, (2) in the maximum possible way such force should "be applied in a precise and principled way", and (3) that success of any such interventions is iterative and not decisive and that policymakers must be "constantly immersed in the week-to-week flow of the conflict, willing and able to adjust as necessary but always leaving military commanders enough leeway to do what is expected of them."

            [Read the U.S. News debate: Should the Obama Administration Do More in Syria?]

            Returning to the options that Dempsey provided above, it is important to remember that under U.S. Code he is charged with being "…the principal military adviser to the President, the National Security Council, the Homeland Security Council, and the Secretary of Defense." With access to all of the counsel of his fellow chiefs he surely has given what he believes to be the best military advice on this matter. Some have seen his options as being very wary about committing force. Under this interpretation he would seem to be much more in the Powell rather than the Mullen way of thinking about the use of force. But is that fair? Perhaps it is, but only in the sense that he offers a frank assessment about the costs and risks of the various options. These costs and risks clearly are underscored by the experiences of the past decade and the state of the armed forces under sequestration.

            Critics see his remarks as being, in effect, a brake on their favored policy prescription of increased U.S. involvement. But at the moment it is unclear what the use of force can achieve, and in any event, the chairman's remarks do not seem to be in marked contrast to those of the president and the secretary of Defense that he serves.

            Michael P. Noonan is the director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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