But cooler heads are in charge at the Pentagon now, seen not only in the Obama administration's conspicuously bland new defense secretary, former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, is showing himself a man of welcome caution in a world in which the United States continues to face pressures to employ its military muscle.
In a letter to Democratic chairman Sen. Carl Levin, Dempsey has warned that establishing a no-fly zone over Syria, as proposed by committee hawks, could cost $500 million a month for starters. It could rise to $ 1 billion, he wrote, requiring "hundreds of ground and sea-based aircraft, intelligence and electronic warfare support, and enablers for refueling and communications."
While the step "would likely include the near-total elimination of the (President Bashar al-Assad) regime's to bomb opposition strongholds," Dempsey wrote, it "may also fail to reduce the violence or shift the momentum because the regime relies overwhelmingly on surface fires -- mortars, artillery and missiles."
Dempsey laid out four other U.S. military options for responding to the Syria crisis, including training and advising the rebel forces, "limited stand-off strikes," creating a buffer zone and seeking to control chemical weapons in Syria. In a polite but pointed reference to Congress's failure to end the budget sequestration, he observed that resultant budget cuts are critical "as we lose readiness" across the board.
With the 2003 rush to war in Iraq and its calamitous aftermath as an obviously background, Dempsey observed that whatever course is pursued, "once we take action we should be prepared for what comes next." He reminded the senators that use of armed force "is no less than an act of war." It's a point about which many of them are sensitive, considering how often the power of Congress to declare war has been ignored or sidestepped since FDR last honored it in December 1941.
The Joint Chiefs chairman was explicit in his caution. "It is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power," he said, "without careful consideration of what is necessary" in order to prevent a failed 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."
At one point, Graham asked Dempsey, "If nothing changes, if we don't change our game, will (Assad) be in power a year from now?"
The Joint Chiefs chairman replied: "I think, likely so."
Meanwhile, at the White House, presidential press secretary Jay Carney raised eyebrows by observing that "while there are shifts in momentum on the battlefield," the Syrian strongman "in our view will never rule all of Syria again." It was hardly an expression of Obama administration's confidence that Assad will eventually be deposed.
In any event, it should be some comfort to the American public that the nation's top uniformed military officer is more alert to the potential consequences of playing policeman to the world than presidents from Lyndon Johnson to George W. Bush have been.
Obama, for all his stated determination to put American foreign policy back on the track of collective international action, continues to be tugged by the John McCains and Lindsey Grahams to veer off course. If he can finish his presidency without getting this country engaged in yet another hazardous and thankless adventure abroad, at the cost of thousands more American lives, that in itself will be a notable legacy.
(Jules Witcover's latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at email@example.com.)