The White House’s top military officer can tell you his objective in Syria just fine

September 6, 2013

My colleague Charles Krauthammer believes it's not worth intervening in Syria unless we actually intend to weaken Assad's regime and help the rebels win. That's a reasonable argument, though it does raise the question, "What if the rebels actually win?" No one who's read C.J. Chivers's horrifying report from the front lines can feel very comfortable with that prospect, either.


Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,  on Capitol Hill in November 2012. (Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

But Krauthammer hangs his case on an exchange from Tuesday's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. Here it is:

Sen. Bob Corker: “What is it you’re seeking?”

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “I can’t answer that, what we’re seeking.”

"We have a problem," writes Krauthammer. "The president proposes attacking Syria, and his top military officer cannot tell you the objective."

This is deeply unfair to Dempsey, who was crystal clear on his objectives during his testimony before the Senate. The snippet Krauthammer quotes isn't about what we're trying to achieve in Syria. It's about the precise wording of the authorization of the use of force — a subject that's too political for Dempsey, a general, to get deep into the weeds on. Here's the full exchange:

SEN. CORKER: So, you know, I'm very sympathetic to the issue of chemical warfare and very sympathetic to what this means to U.S. credibility, and I'm very sympathetic to the fact that people are watching in the region and this'll have an impact. But I want to say I am not sympathetic regarding the lack of effort that is taking place, in my opinion, on the ground as it relates to the vetted opposition. And I hope the end state that you imagine here is something that, while it will be proportional and will be surgical, is something that enhances the strategy that we've already laid in place. And I hope you'll answer that, yes or no, at this time.

GEN. DEMPSEY: The answer to whether I support additional support for the moderate opposition is yes.

SEN. CORKER: And this authorization will support those activities in addition to responding to the weapons of mass destruction.

GEN. DEMPSEY: I don't know how the resolution will evolve, but I support —

SEN. CORKER: But what you're seeking — what is it you're seeking?

GEN. DEMPSEY: I can't answer that, what we're seeking.

Senate staffers read the exchange the same way, in part because Dempsey was perfectly clear about his objective when asked:

SEN. MENENDEZ: General Dempsey, what do we envision, in broad terms, this potential military campaign to be in terms of its effect? What do we expect at the end of any authorized action to see the results look like? What is our expectation?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yes, thank you, chairman. The task I've been given is to develop military options to deter — that is to say, change the regime's calculus about the use of chemical weapons and degrade his ability to do so — that is to say, both activities directly related to chemical weapons themselves, but also potentially the means of employing them — and anything further than that I would prefer to speak about in a classified setting.

Dempsey's job is to craft military strategy in accordance with the administration's goals and Congress's authorization of force. It's easy to imagine why he might think it improper, or simply unwise, to get into  how Congress should design the authorization of force. He left that to Kerry and Hagel.

For better or worse, the administration does have an articulated goal in Syria: Punish Assad's use of chemical weapons with strikes that will deter future tyrants from following his example. At times, the administration also argues that those strikes — which will focus on Assad's military infrastructure — will degrade Assad's capabilities just enough to push him toward the negotiating table. That might be too little, or too muddled, of a mission for Krauthammer. I think the kind of calibration that requires merits quite a bit of skepticism. But being skeptical of the articulated mission is different than there being no articulated mission. Dempsey is perfectly clear on what's been asked of him.

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Brad Plumer · September 6, 2013