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Intervention on the Cheap

Lawmakers trying to tie Syria to sequestration don't seem to realize we've already paid for this war.

Syria may be the issue of the week, but the budgetary opportunists are not missing the chance to tie defense budgets to the vote on a missile strike. No sooner had President Obama announced that he would seek congressional approval for launching missiles on Damascus, than the defenders of defense stepped out to say: The Pentagon can't do this; it has no money; do something about the sequester.

This is Washington; nobody misses an opportunity to hang their pet rock on a passing vote. But the thing is, budgetary sequestration is irrelevant to what the president says he intends to do. We already bought the five destroyers now off the Syrian coast. We bought the Tomahawks the president plans to fire off, if he gets the vote he wants, years ago. There are several dozen on each of those ships. And we are paying the sailors who will fire them off. In fact, the president has now twice exempted military pay from the sequester (smart political move).

General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said the military is ready to do whatever the president asks. There is no suggestion here, of any kind, that the sequester has degraded the capability of the military to execute this option, whether one thinks it is wise, necessary, potentially effective, or none of these things.

The administration has pretty sharply circumscribed what it intends to do. In my view, the action that is being planned -- a limited strike on selected targets in Syria -- is not intended to weaken Bashar al-Assad's military in any significant way; it is not intended to alter the internal balance in a civil war; it is not intended to produce regime change in Damascus.

One could reasonably ask: Why do it at all, then? My suspicion is that it is not about the civil war in any profound sense. The president and the secretary of state have made it clear: It is about the development and use of weapons of mass destruction. And, as Secretary Kerry made more clear on the Sunday talk shows, it is about Iran. "Watch what we do, Tehran, and take note," he seemed to be saying.

Obama has been saying for years that nonproliferation rules are important to him -- even creating norms about their use that are of dubious validity under current treaties and international law, as is the case with chemical weapons. It is the credibility of that commitment which is at stake, not his support for the Syrian rebels.

This is why I expect any strike to be limited in impact and duration. One can argue about whether Iran will be deterred from its nuclear program by a strike on Damascus over a weapon that some think shouldn't even be in the same class as nuclear weapons. But this seems to be the president's purpose: It is a limited, demonstrative strike, not something intended to change the balance of forces in Syria.

Perhaps the best proxy for the costs of a few days of Tomahawk flights is not Kosovo, which was a classic air interdiction campaign, or Iraq, an invasion, or Afghanistan, regime change. Libya comes closer and it cost a billion dollars, but there the United States was flying intelligence flights and sharing the data, transporting forces, refueling other aircraft, for days. This strike does not sound nearly so extensive. The most comparable strike would be the brief Clinton campaign in 1998, when the United States sent missiles into Afghanistan in a failed effort to "get" Osama bin Laden, and into Sudan to wipe out an alleged bioweapons facility (which turned out not to be one).

One can ask how effective this message is likely to be or whether it will occasion much of a response from Assad, who seems determined to hold on to power by any means available. But one cannot claim that it wreaks havoc on the Pentagon budget or that the Pentagon is not ready because of sequestration.

The back of my envelope says the incremental costs might come to $100-200 million for the operating days, any hazardous duty pays, oil consumption, and the like. Even that seems generous. And if we want to replace the Tomahawks down the line, they come to about $1.5 million each, so the (voluntary) replacement costs could be another $200-300 million.

That's cheap war. Keep firing and the cost goes up. Take out his air defenses, radar, and communications grid, the costs go up. Fly a no-fly zone to protect the rebels -- now we are talking real money. But a few days of lobbing missiles to send a nonproliferation warning? Not expensive.

Congress needs to deliberate whether it is effective war, given the limited mission. But the sequester has no part in it. Or, put another way: Linking the sequester and Syria is a political, not a budgetary issue. The Pentagon can easily reprogram what it needs for the strike. But this is a political "seize the moment" issue for politicians who have been seeking some way to spare defense from sequestration ever since they started feeling guilty about voting for the sequester in the first place.

Opportunism in Washington knows no limits and no shame. So it wouldn't surprise me to see the "defending defense" crowd seize this passing vessel as another way to make their case. The president would do well to resist this bargain, that is, if he wants to protect his broader strategy for getting a budget deal downstream.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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