Yesterday I noted that Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey generated for the Senate the sort of document (complete with a parade of horribles) that one delivers to a president who has long since decided he wants to do nothing. (As an aside, if new national security adviser Susan Rice really is in favor of a bolder Syria policy, she got blindsided by Dempsey, who made it infinitely more difficult to act decisively. Maybe she, like President Obama, is just about talk and no policy action.) We are quite simply ceding Syria to Bashar al-Assad/Iran/Russia/Hezbollah, literally without a fight.
But Dempsey’s reasoning goes beyond Syria, suggesting the rationale that will lead to a containment policy for a nuclear-armed Iran. He writes:
We have learned from the past 10 years, however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state. We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action. 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.
I know that the decision to use force is not one that any of us takes lightly. It is no less than an act of war. As we weigh our options, we should be able to conclude with some confidence that the use of force will move us toward the intended outcome. We must also understand risk-not just to our forces , but to our other global responsibilities. This is especially critical as we lose readiness due to budget cuts and fiscal uncertainty. Some options may not be feasible in time or cost without compromising our security elsewhere. Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid. We should also act in accordance with the law, and to the extent possible, in concert with our allies and partners to share the burden and solidify the outcome.
This is the “Iraq or nothing” false choice that anti-interventionists use to prevent concrete action by the United States. If we act, maybe Iran will strike back and involve us in a greater regional war, the thinking goes. So then we simply accede to Iranian domination of Syria and of the region.
When it comes to Iran itself, the argument will escalate. How can we contemplate military action against Iran when it might retaliate or strike Israel, which will strike back? You see how it goes. Unmentioned in this type of analysis are the costs of inaction (100,000 dead; an emboldened Iran; the collapse of Jordan; new threats to Israel from Hezbollah, etc.). This is a formula for retreat and appeasement since the cost of acting or the potential for things going wrong is always worse than a blank column where the cost of paralysis should go.
Even worse, understand what Dempsey is saying here about our defense capabilities. He justifies not acting in part because “as we lose readiness due to budget cuts and fiscal uncertainty,” we shouldn’t be taking on new responsibilities. President Obama decimates our national security budget, in turn leaving us no choice but inaction. A Capitol Hill Republican plugged into defense budgeting issues says bluntly: “For the first time, the U.S. military is saying, ‘Look, there are things that we can’t do.’ We’ve had freedom of movement and operations since the ’92 Gulf War, and now Obama has so badly managed the military we can’t even sustain a no-fly zone over a third-rate military with crumbling air defenses.”
This is the inevitable result of the president’s policies. By delay, unilateral disarmament, retrenchment in every venue (Iraq, Afghanistan), he has signaled to his own military and our foes that we shouldn’t even seriously think about acting whenever there are risks — and there are always risks. And yet Obama has stated over and over that Assad must go. He’s said a zillion times a nuclear-armed Iran is “unacceptable.” He’s drawn red lines. So how can his policies now depart from — in fact vitiate — his stated goals?
That is a question for the president and his senior advisers, who seem not to comprehend that words uttered by the president are meaningless unless followed by action. Obama has by his own actions (delay and disarmament primarily) and by his own appointments (yes men and/or grossly unqualified characters, such as Chuck Hagel) so limited our range of actions as to make inaction the only conceivable outcome. That is likely what he counted on all along; now it’s inevitable. And if inevitable in Syria, inaction will certainly be the outcome in Iran — unless of course, Israel takes its own security and that of the West more seriously than we do.