No Military Consensus on Syria

Editor’s Note: Michael O’Hanlon responds to the idea that Syria is a war the Pentagon doesn’t want, noting he senses no overwhelming majority that believes President Obama is handling a difficult situation badly. O’Hanlon agrees it is unfortunate the United States has failed to persuade more international backing for military action, but that accusations of incompetence are off the mark.

Retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, in his Sept. 6 commentary, “A war the Pentagon doesn’t want” [Washington Forum], makes some valid points about the challenges the Obama administration has encountered — and, at times, created — in its approach to Syria. He may be right that this is a war that most officers in the military, like most Americans, don’t want. But greater scrutiny should be given to his suggestion of a widespread consensus within military ranks that the president’s handling of this crisis has been incompetent.

First, I do not share Scales’s impression of a prevalent view of Syria among military officers. In my own conversations with retired and serving Defense Department officers, I sense no overwhelming majority that believes President Obama is handling badly what all agree is a difficult situation.

Second, in any event, the generals and admirals have no exclusive claim to getting it right on the use of force. Historical examples include the Cuban missile crisis, in which key members of the Joint Chiefs unwisely recommended military preemption, and Vietnam, where military leaders often counseled and employed very poor counterinsurgency tactics (even if civilians may have made the larger errors).

More recently, in 1999, the Joint Chiefs and many other officers were largely against escalating in Kosovo after initial setbacks. If followed, their advice could well have led to a NATO defeat. In 2001, the Pentagon had no viable war plan for Afghanistan, and the CIA basically had to invent one on the fly. In 2002 and 2003, when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld prevented the Pentagon from properly preparing for the post-Saddam Hussein phase of the Iraq war, far too many military officers acquiesced.

None of this is to blame the military for U.S. travails in war. Today’s military leaders get it right more often than they get it wrong — and probably get it right more often than have civilians. But the military is not axiomatically the source of received wisdom on how to handle any given national security crisis.

As to some of Scales’s other points, yes, it is too bad that Obama has generally failed to elicit greater international backing for a possible military response to Bashar al-Assad’s alleged brutal use of chemicals on Aug. 21. But this may say more about the world than about Obama; countries are being given ample opportunity to form their views, and a democracy, however powerful, cannot impose its preferred course of action on others.

Scales suggests that any muscular approach would meet strong resistance from military officers — but no such approach has been proposed. The president contends that the use and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction pose such an existential threat to the world that the brutal attack in Damascus last month cannot go unpunished. That argument is eminently reasonable, whatever one thinks about the proper U.S. role in Syria’s civil war.

In military terms, Obama’s logic for a potential strike holds, even if it is less comprehensive toward the war in general than I would prefer. A limited strike would cause Assad pain while signaling U.S. willingness to do more if Assad repeats the attack. Operation Desert Fox in Iraq in 1998, the use of air power in Kosovo in 1999 and the use of airpower and covert agents in Afghanistan in 2001 all provide models for action that do not involve putting ground units into combat. Assad is surely aware of these precedents and likely to get the message after any U.S. strike — whether or not a delay in launching allows him to protect some assets.

Much about Syria is debatable, and we are a long way from any finish line, given the complexities associated with the new diplomatic effort to monitor and then gradually eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. But Scales’s allegations of incompetence in the White House regarding the possible use of force against Assad, and of some whispering campaign in the Pentagon against the White House’s handling of Syria, are off the mark.