In 1993, with Serbian paramilitaries committing mass slaughter in Bosnia, officials in the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton feverishly debated the merits of an intervention. At each discussion, Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, threw cold water on their plans. "When we asked what it would take to free Sarajevo airport from the surrounding Serb artillery," Madeleine Albright, then U.N. ambassador, recalled in her memoirs, Powell responded that "it would take tens of thousands of troops, cost billions of dollars, probably result in numerous casualties, and require a long and open-ended commitment of U.S. forces." Clinton would stay his hand until 1995 and only then discover that he could stop the Serbs with a far smaller commitment than Powell had described.
Now we are here again, with Syria as Serbia and Gen. Martin Dempsey as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. On Aug. 19, a few days before the devastating chemical attack on the outskirts of Damascus that has provoked Barack Obama's administration into weighing a military response, Dempsey told Congress that the United States should not take sides in a "tragic and complex" struggle "among multiple factions." In July, he stated that even the relatively modest option of "limited stand-off strikes" to degrade Syria's offensive capacity would require "hundreds of aircraft" and ships and cost "billions."
Maybe Powell was wrong and Dempsey is right. But I'm inclined to think that the real difference is that while Powell was restraining civilian officials like Albright who felt compelled to act, Dempsey has provided the cover of his authority to officials looking for reasons to act as little as possible. The giant catastrophes of Iraq and Afghanistan have produced in both the public and senior officials an overwhelming resistance to intervention and above all to intervention in the name of humanitarian protection.
From all accounts, the Obama administration is preparing a brief and extremely circumscribed strike at the military units and infrastructure responsible for the chemical attack -- "just muscular enough not to get mocked," as one U.S. official was recently quoted as saying. An intervention this modest will do little, if anything, to hobble the Syrian army's ability to kill civilians through indiscriminate bombing and rocket fire. Nor would that be the purpose, anyway; the volley of cruise missiles would, rather, send a message that Obama's "red line" on the use of chemical weapons is not to be flouted. Yet it might not even do that: Because the administration has chosen to overlook a series of earlier, less-egregious chemical attacks, the Syrian military may simply learn a lesson in how far it can go.
There are supremely good reasons to steer as clear as possible of the Syrian whirlpool. We know them well: The United States could find itself in the middle of another Middle Eastern war at a time when the American public is dead set against it; Washington has long since proved that it lacks the capacity to shape desirable outcomes in the aftermath of regime change; and intervention could allow the jihadi and al-Qaeda forces that have been fighting alongside more secular rebels to stake a claim to power should President Bashar al-Assad fall. Oh, and it will cost a lot of money at a time when the United States doesn't have it.
Yet the administration has been so reluctant to act in Syria, so paralyzed by past failure, that it seems to give little weight to the consequence of not acting. Had the president listened to the senior officials who advised him last year to help the rebels, he might have been able to change the balance of force before al Qaeda affiliates gained their current foothold and before Hezbollah entered the battle on Assad's side. It's too late for that. But failing to act forcefully now will carry new dangers: a Sunni-Shiite civil war spreading from Syria to Lebanon to Iraq, sucking Saudi Arabia and Iran even more deeply into the conflict; Jordan and Lebanon destabilized by a vast refugee flight; and the death of tens of thousands more Syrians.
Those are powerful reasons to push back against the worst-case scenarios and the allegedly astronomical costs of action. In a recent analysis, the inestimable Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies argues that General Dempsey has systematically exaggerated the likely costs of action and the probability of failure and has ignored the perils of inaction.