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Looking for the wrong way out of Syria

Listening to House members criticize President Obama’s plan for a military strike to degrade and deter Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons makes you wonder why they want to provide even more money for the Defense Department above the $512.5 billion they have approved for fiscal 2014.

That amount is for the “core” Pentagon budget. Under the Obama 2012 strategic plan, the money is to cover circumstances “when U.S. forces are committed to a large-scale operation in one region” (such as Afghanistan) and to deny the objectives of “an opportunistic aggressor in a second region” (Syria).

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washington Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

There is a second pot of money called the Overseas Contingency Operations account with an additional $85.8 billion for fiscal 2014. It’s for Afghanistan, the United States’ remaining activity in Iraq and the anti-terrorism fight.

That fund is a legacy from the George W. Bush administration, which sharply increased the core budget, then designed to fight two wars. The administration sought supplemental funding every year to pay for the two wars.

Also, Bush was the first U.S. president who didn’t seek to raise taxes to pay for fighting. He reduced taxes, in fact.

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In the years since 2001, the Pentagon budget has nearly doubled. Today, many House members still want more funding for what is already the world’s strongest military force.

Why do many lawmakers seeking more Pentagon money refuse to support the president when he threatens to use some military power to prevent the Syrian regime from using chemical weapons? They seem to want to use the budget as a reason not to attack Syria.

At a House Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) asked, “How do you pay for military action in Syria if we do something?”

His own answer: “I think it’s pretty clear that a supplemental would be required,” adding, “History tells us that there will likely be second- or third-order effects that demand further U.S. military action.”

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, answered McKeon in part by saying that Obama has said the strike is “in our national interest, and my assumption — and I hope you would agree — is if something is in our national interest, and we’d choose to act on it, that we can find the money to pay for it.”

McKeon, who has complained about defense cuts, voiced concern that the money to attack Syria would come from operations and maintenance funds that might “deplete our readiness for other areas.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel assured McKeon that with the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, “if there is a strike in Syria . . . a significant amount of the cost of that strike, obviously anything that goes beyond October 1, would be in fiscal 2014.”

The Pentagon’s final fiscal 2014 appropriations bill is still before Congress.

Costs of the proposed operation were examined in a Sept. 3 Congressional Research Service report. It said the cost of the deployment of the four Navy destroyers for the Syrian operation “appears to be part of the Navy’s planned peacetime presence mission, and for that reason would be funded within the Navy’s base budget for regular activities.” The same would apply to two carriers now in the area. All costs would be in the fiscal 2013 budget.

The Obama administration has insisted that there will be “no boots on the ground,” and on Tuesday, Dempsey said the currently conceived Syria attack plan “would be stand-off.” That means, he explained, that U.S. forces “would remain outside of the ability of the Syrian regime to threaten us.”

Translation from military language: The attack would involve not just launching Tomahawk missiles from U.S. destroyers safely outside Syrian waters but also American aircraft firing weapons from outside Syrian airspace.

McKeon was not the only member focused on budget implications.

Rep. Michael R.Turner (R-Ohio) asked Hagel how there can be “enough money to take us into this conflict in Syria” at a time when employees at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in his district are facing furloughs and loss of wages from sequestration of Pentagon funding. Hagel noted that the number of furlough days had been reduced in part by taking money from future readiness.

Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), who on Sept. 3 announced that he opposed a strike on Syria, asked Hagel to choose which was more “detrimental to the national defense”: not undertaking the attack on Syria with what he described as “an unbelievably small military response,” or “cutting $587 billion from our national defense,” including plans “to cut two to three carrier strike groups . . . [and] destroying seven of our Navy cruisers.”

Hagel said sequestration over the long term could “completely decimate the internal dynamics of our military.” But, he added, “that’s not the issue at hand.”

The defense secretary could have asked Forbes and other members: Why spend billions on aircraft carriers and cruisers if you don’t want to threaten their use or, God forbid, have to use them?

For previous Fine Print columns, go to

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