It seems that the continued debate in Washington over the right direction of our Syria policy is growing both hotter and more personal. The key question is what all will come out of this contentious Washington dog fight?

On one side and at the top of the decision tree is the President, who clearly is cautious to a fine point. Given past U.S. experiences fighting unnecessary wars and poorly conducting those that were needed, he has good reason to be asking the tough questions. For the moment, many of his military and other advisers are saying either stay out or act with what I will call a “minimal footprint.”  Others are say that the intervention should be enough to “win” the removal of Assad and the construction of a relatively broad and stable interim government.

On the stay out or at least minimal action side is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dempsey and probably much of his chief colleagues. He has seen enough of the horror of bad and stupid wars and their costs and seems to not want what he may see as another. Yet he does not seem to have an answer to how to otherwise deal with the some 100,000 dead and counting, the continued killing fields of Syria and now beyond. Nor does he address the growing instability of the region and the threat of inter-communal religious warfare. I believe he is using the cost estimate of any action, somewhere in the $100 billion range, as an instrument of his argument by claiming this is unaffordable. This is likely a specious argument since there are many “low profile” and low risk actions that might help the opposition turn the tide.  Further, there are other tools at hand that can help the larger political picture in favor of the Syrian Free Army and opposition groups other than expensive massive resources.

But General Dempsey has outlined in his letter to the Senate Armed Forces Committee his perspective and well summarized by my colleague and friend Kevin Baron at the national security web media outlet Defense One:

“Call it the Dempsey Doctrine: isolate the country, but don’t invade it. To help one side of a messy civil war so politically sensitive that Washington has to keep its distance, the U.S. can send in covert supplies, funnel arms and cash. But don’t take ownership of it, overtly. Heed the Pottery Barn Rule. The U.S. didn’t break it, so the U.S. doesn’t have to buy it. Instead, Dempsey’s position now is “a regional approach”: box in the conflict to prevent the war and weapons from spreading.

Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is “clear eyed about the potential unintended consequences of military intervention in Syria, given the dynamics on the ground.”

Gen. Dempsey wrote in his letter a further admonition:

“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.”

On the other side may be Secretary John Kerry, who does want to address these issues that are related to bringing peace to the whole Middle East region. Even more to his right is Senator  McCain, who has made, as have others, support for Iraq-like mindless intervention one of his key policy actions and who seems to never turn his back on a fight if he can help it, even at the cost of American lives. While neither man wants American “boots on the ground” (at least not now), they are pushing for actions which likely (not as some say, inevitably) lead to greater involvement if and when things get more complex and difficult and the goal of getting out Assad requires more engagement.

Yet the problem of even Secretary Kerry’s approach is that, at least in public, there does not seem to yet be a coherent and comprehensive strategy for both the “starting gate” of actions and the end point of final resolution on acceptable grounds that ensures a relatively stable and secure region. If this is beyond the capacity of America and our allies then the case for staying out becomes stronger, but not necessarily totally compelling.  At least the unintended consequences need to be addressed as much as possible.

I do not doubt we have developed a number of contingency plans with the National Security Council with State, Defense, and the CIA’s inputs and debates.  It would be the height of stupidity not to have done so. Thus the claim there is no “policy” is NOT relevant while the debate goes on and the administration seeks greater clarity and consults with our allies on next steps. One thing is clear: that the Geneva II option, while still on the table, is not the only option being looked at.

The other middle approach is one that takes certain well defined and understood elements from Gen Dempsey’s ideas of intervention, such as his restrictions, and also elements of Secretary Kerry’s full court diplomatic and “sticks and carrots” plan. Perhaps some low profile special activities could possibly turn the tide if we can get the opposition more broad and unified. As said before here, a strong intervention of a peacekeeping/peacemaking, mediation, and monitoring force both at the point of initial action and during a long-period needed for reconciliation of groups and civilian security could make a positive impact.  There is no certainty in any of these approaches. The question is can our actions reduce the killings and make for a better future for the Syrian people?

We welcome your comments!


  1. Harry Blaney July 25, 2013 / 10:41 AM

    Chuck’s thought that our problem is national sovereignty has much to commend but it’s not the full story. Nations have abused their status and made war and conducted themselves often in ways that are self-defeating and un-humanitarian. But so have non-state actors and so have some international organizations – for example the United Nations standing down and permitting the slaughter in Srebrenica and Sarajevo in the conflict in Yugoslavia or in the Congo. Yet, just like the United nations, countries have acted wisely as did America in World War II when we acted to defeat Hitler’s Germany and Japan, but afterwards built global institutions including the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, and supported rebuilding Europe with the Marshall Plan, NATO, and supporting the unification of Europe.

    Nor do I share the view that President Obama is equal to former Bush II. They are very different in their domestic and international policies and actions. Obama ended the U.S. military action in Iraq, Bush stated it on a lie and with mindless stupidity which Obama opposed. Obama is far wiser and more cautious but he has continued to take down terrorists that threaten America and our allies. Mistakes were made and some bad decisions but if you are talking of mass deaths let us all remember what the Japanese did in China, the U.S. and Britain did in our bombing of Germany, Hitler did to London, and the standing down of the U.N. and others in Rwanda and in Darfur for so long. It seems to me that Syria deserves better but not the way we acted in Iraq, rather a wiser acceptance of the UN mandate of the responsibility to protect and the hard part of finding a way to make it work in reality with the least loss of life and effective humanitarian intervention.

  2. chuck woolery July 24, 2013 / 8:52 PM

    The source of this problem is a world paradigm that put’s national sovereignty supreme to the protection of human rights. The Syrian gov is committing mass murder in this light much as we invaded Iraq to protect our nation’s sovereignty to defend it’s interests and perceived security threat. Obama’s cautious inconsistency reinforces this global mindset which has no rational, peaceful, sustainable or humanitarian outcome. If the Syrian regime is replaced…just more of the same. Obama replaces Bush…more of the same. War, arms, sanctions (more deadly than war and equally in-discriminant) remains a solution in the absence of the global rule of law. If one person kills another…we call them a murderer. If one person kills a dozen people they become a celebrity. If one person is responsible for thousands of deaths…we call them president….

  3. Harry Blaney July 24, 2013 / 3:01 PM

    Paul, Appreciate your comment especially after so many mistakes by Bush II, but can’t agree with your premiss, I could give you many reasons why America should care for the problems and sorrows of this world like climate change, peacemaking/war, non-proliferation, poverty, etc. And much of the specifics of why and how are in this blog and written by many others. But at the moment I feel rather reflective of what is happening in the world and its deeper meaning for mankind, and I will share with you the words of one of my favorite poets (I have many and most are dead)…..Best wishes.

    “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

    — John Donne, No Man Is An Island

    • Paul Sack July 24, 2013 / 3:05 PM

      Your reply suggests small benefit in return for very great costs.

  4. Paul Sack July 24, 2013 / 1:26 PM

    First, there was the Cold War; now “instability” is the enemy. Why should we care whether there is political chaos in Syria or Sunnis are killing Shiites and vice versa?

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