Jeffrey Goldberg writes: Twenty years ago, in a debate over the war in Bosnia, Madeleine Albright, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, issued a challenge to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell. Albright wanted the U.S. to confront an aggressive Serbia; Powell and the Pentagon were hesitant. Albright grew frustrated: “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Albright asked. Powell later said that he thought Albright was going to give him an aneurysm.
Flash-forward to this past Wednesday. At a principals meeting in the White House situation room, Secretary of State John Kerry began arguing, vociferously, for immediate U.S. airstrikes against airfields under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime — specifically, those fields it has used to launch chemical weapons raids against rebel forces.
It was at this point that the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the usually mild-mannered Army General Martin Dempsey, spoke up, loudly. According to several sources, Dempsey threw a series of brushback pitches at Kerry, demanding to know just exactly what the post-strike plan would be and pointing out that the State Department didn’t fully grasp the complexity of such an operation.
Dempsey informed Kerry that the Air Force could not simply drop a few bombs, or fire a few missiles, at targets inside Syria: To be safe, the U.S. would have to neutralize Syria’s integrated air-defense system, an operation that would require 700 or more sorties. At a time when the U.S. military is exhausted, and when sequestration is ripping into the Pentagon budget, Dempsey is said to have argued that a demand by the State Department for precipitous military action in a murky civil war wasn’t welcome. [Continue reading…]