Can Senators Handle The Truth on Syria?

Senators John McCain and Carl Levin have demanded answers from General Martin Dempsey on Syria. Can they handle the truth?


My latest for RealClearDefense, “Dempsey to Senators: Can You Handle the Truth on Syria?“ has posted:

Senators John McCain and Carl Levin have demanded answers from General Martin Dempsey on Syria. Can they handle the truth?


It’s rather immediately obvious that these options range from not very good to downright awful. Nor are either of the extremes—doing nothing or a full-out invasion of Syria followed by an occupation force—considered.

Dempsey notes, correctly, that none of the options ought be “considered in isolation,” arguing that “It would be better if they were assessed and discussed in the context of an overall whole-of-government strategy for achieving our policy objectives in coordination with our allies and partners.”

After all that, the chairman finally comes as close as he’s going to in offering an actual policy recommendation: “To this end, I have supported a regional approach that would isolate the conflict to prevent regional destabilization and weapons proliferation. At the same time, we should help develop a moderate opposition— including their military capabilities—while maintaining pressure on the Assad regime.” To say that this raises more questions than it answers is a decided understatement.


The chairman recognizes that this isn’t what anyone in Washington wants to hear. But he begins with a simple premise: “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.” None of the options on the table, at least as described in Dempsey’s letter, inspire such confidence.

Furthermore, while the crisis in Syria may well have serious spill-over effects, so might more significant American military action. Dempsey reminds us that, “We must also understand risk—not just to our forces, but to our other global responsibilities,” adding, “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.”

Indeed, we’re already reducing our forward-deployed seapower and canceling classes at the Naval Academy in the wake of sequestration. Another overseas intervention costing billions of dollars a month will require some combination of greater cuts in other parts of the defense budget, radical cuts in our social safety net, significant tax increases, or increased government borrowing. Given Congress’ inability to come to a compromise to avoid the sequester—which was specifically designed to be so stupid and painful as to give them no choice but to work out their differences—it’s highly unlikely that they’ll consider any of those options palatable.


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. C. Clavin says:

    If you have the world’s greatest military…you want to use the world’s greatest military.

  2. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @C. Clavin:

    The thing of it is that, as far as I can tell anyway, Dempsey pretty soundly opposes the use of force in Syria. McCain seems to be the one beating that particular drum.

  3. Scott says:

    More and more, I am convinced we need to stay as far away from Syria as possible. I suspect we are supporting the wrong side. This is becoming a sectarianm, religious war between Shiites and Sunnis. It is spilling into Irag. Personally, I think we are going to wish we made more nice with Iran than the Saudi fundamentatlists.

  4. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Scott: We never seem to learn the lesson that meddling produces unexpected and undesirable results.

  5. walt moffett says:

    Good to see the cost estimates (which I’d double, Murphy rules) and what options the military experts are proposing. However, none sound better than letting the Syrians, et al, work this out on their own. They might be able to come up with something that works for them.

  6. JohnMcC says:

    It’s an interesting phenomenon when the military is reluctant to go to war but their biggest benefactors in Congress want to fight. I have the impression that through most of our wars, the military has been anxious to march. I remember a Lieutenant (a ‘ring-knocker’, a WestPointer) who told me in ’67 that VietNam was ‘a dirty little war but it’s the only war we’ve got’. Meaning that it was essential for his career that there be a war and this would have to do.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @JohnMcC: I don’t think it’s careerism so much as the nature of the warrior profession. Back in 1989, all of the lieutenants in my unit were pissed that we were stuck in Germany while the guys from Bragg “got” to go to Panama to fight.

  8. JohnMcC says:

    @James Joyner: You have a more generous spirit than I, Dr Joyner.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @JohnMcC: Professional soldiers want to soldier. If there’s a war on–especially if there hasn’t been one in a while–they want to go. That diminishes with age, family connections, and frequency of deployment.

  10. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Scott: More and more, I am convinced we need to stay as far away from Syria as possible. I suspect we are supporting the wrong side.

    I’d agree with you, with one modification: I don’t think there is a right side here.

  11. JohnMcC says:

    @James Joyner: Well, one of the pleasures that draws me here fairly often is the dialogue with people of learning and reason like yourself, sir. And as I was mowing the lawn just now I found myself ruminating on your first reply and my response — thinking I sounded more cynical than I actually meant to. I did not wish to imply you are gullible or were being played for a fool.

    And I fully understand the warrior spirit. I was a lowly AirForce clerk typist when the Gulf of Tonkin ‘incident’ occurred and I couldn’t stand the idea that there would be a war while I was in the service and I would be pounding a typewriter while it was fought. I found that I could guarantee myself a front row seat by becoming one of the brand-new ParaRescue Medics. So cross-trained, volunteered, jumped, played with GreenBerets and proceeded to have the sh!t scared out of myself more times than I can tell. Wanted to be John Wayne. Discovered that John Wayne (or the real characters that he played) had MUCH bigger b*lls than I.

    So, yeah, got that warrior spirit thing down.

    I would like to make two points, though: First, that plenty of very cynical career-minded men end up in the peace-time military and use wars to their advantage. Joseph Heller actually had been to war, you know. Catch 22 is not completely a work of fiction. And no “warrior” needs to invent a phrase like “getting your ticket punched”.

    And second, that cynical political b*stards have been known (it really has happened, hard as it is to believe) to use the warrior spirit of brave honorable men to fight callous, pointless wars for their own advantage. See: Cheney vis Halliburton. I was in a VA talk-group of old twitchy ex-GI’s once. This one night the conversation was lagging. The moderator says, ‘do any of you guys remember the moment when you realized you were being used?’ There wasn’t time for everyone to tell their stories. Could have gone on all night.

    And having bored you to death with an old man’s ramblings, let me ask you to return to my actual point in my first comment. Has there been a time when Congressmen were hot for a war that the Generals did not want to fight? How did that work?

  12. 11B40 says:


    Psssst… Islam is the millstone. If your plan doesn’t include constraining, undermining, or eradicating Islam, you don’t have a plan. What you have is a hope.