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Katy Burns: On Syria, a sober answer to McCain’s question

Last modified: 7/28/2013 9:10:38 PM
It was quite a week for news.

The most important baby in the world – ever, it would seem from the media reaction – made a grand debut in London.

Sadly for the celebrity watchers among us, he has been named George, a name which – with due apologies to the many wonderful Georges out there – simply hasn’t the pizazz of North West (Kardashian-West) or Speck Wildhorse (Mellencamp).

And for those not transfixed by that wondrous event, another (lamentably, not so great) thing reappeared on the world stage. That is, of course, the image of an apparently irrepressible and playful appendage belonging to one Anthony Weiner, late of the U.S. Congress, which showed up – again – in the iffier regions of cyberspace, just as Weiner was trying to redeem himself in the race for mayor of New York City.

There was something else, too, sort of lost in the fuss. . . . What was it?

Oh, yes, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told us what further intervention – the use of American military force – in the ongoing civil war in Syria could cost this country in both dollars and in the blood of our troops.

Dempsey – a highly decorated career soldier who doesn’t buy bluster – had been challenged by Sen. John McCain, who with his Senate pal Lindsay Graham (and occasionally our own Kelly Ayotte) is seemingly hell-bent on getting this nation more involved in the Syrian quagmire. McCain informed the world that he would put a hold – a particularly odious gimmick employed by senators who want to bring proceedings in that once august body to a screeching halt – on the appointment of Dempsey for a second term unless Dempsey gave him really good reasons why the U.S. shouldn’t charge into Syria.

So Dempsey did. And he made it plain, in a simple three-page letter to the Senate, that it would cost a bundle to intervene – up to several billion a month, depending on what options are chosen.

It could entail the commitment of “hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines and other enablers” and require troops ranging “from several hundred to thousands” with serious risks of loss of American planes and lives.

We could provoke retaliatory strikes by Syria’s well-equipped military – including wider use of chemical weapons – and cause more inadvertent civilian casualties

The use of force would be, he said bluntly and without equivocation, “no less than an act of war.”

We need to know the consequences. Our political leaders need to know them. Our armchair generals need to know them. Because we sure didn’t know them the last time we blithely went to war. Or at least no one told us beforehand.

Consider. Before we invaded Iraq, the Bush administration told the Congress and the nation that the likely price tag of the quickie excursion would be a paltry $50 billion to $60 billion. And we would, for that price tag, be out of that country, with a new, democratic government installed, within a handful of months. When Bush’s first economic advisor, Lawrence Lindsay, said the war would more likely cost in the neighborhood of perhaps $100 or even $200 billion, he was ousted from his job.

In fact, the price for our Iraq misadventure is more likely to be upwards of $3 trillion – yep, trillion, an amount one can’t really fully grasp – when all the costs, including lifetime care for grievously wounded troops, are included.

Once we kicked out Saddam Hussein and set up a government, we were told, we could vamoose. When then-Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki candidly told Congress that we really would need more like “several hundred thousand” soldiers to keep order, he was rebuked by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, he was iced out of the inner circle, and his estimate was called “wildly off the mark” by Paul Wolfowitz, one of the administration’s more enthusiastic war hawks.

In the end, of course, many hundreds of thousands of American troops rotated in and out of that wretched country for almost a decade. And what we ultimately left is something less than a grand democracy.

This time, Dempsey made clear, lessons have been learned.

“We have learned from the last 10 years . . . 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,” he wrote.

“Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid.”

What is happening in Syria is truly heartbreaking. The loss of civilian life and the destruction of so much of that sad land shock the soul. But can we, in the long run, really help? Or would our entry into the fray ultimately make matters worse for the Syrian people and for the region? Do we need to intervene in every ongoing tragedy on the world stage?

And how much more treasure can we spend on foreign forays? Especially when here at home we are relentlessly slashing spending on everything from the crumbling infrastructure that was once the envy of the rest of the world to the most basic needs of our most desperate and disadvantaged citizens. For heaven’s sake, we are even pulling the pittance that funds Meals on Wheels, a lifeline for many of our frailest citizens!

So far the drumbeat for greater involvement in Syria – or any other place, particularly in the Middle East – seems to be falling on deaf ears for most Americans. But as we know from our painful past, it can be all too easy to sink, gradually, into terrible quagmires. And fearsomely hard to extract ourselves from them.

We have to be aware of a lot more than just cute new babies and creepy ex-congressmen.

(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)


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