The Syrian regime has now almost certainly attacked its own people with chemical weapons. Tens upon tens of thousands have died over the two years of the Syrian civil war, easily making it one of the largest conflicts in the region since World War II. And yet, although Syria is a close friend, if not ally, of Russia, there has been no major military crisis between the former Cold War rivals, no impending clash of the great powers over Damascus; instead, the United Nations is ensnared, as usual, in its own bureaucratic bumf.
Calls for intervention against Syria, particularly in the United States, are met with grim warnings about the difficulties and complications of intervening against a third-string Middle Eastern power. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, for example, reportedly confronted Secretary of State John Kerry over striking Syrian air bases. Dempsey told Kerry such an effort would require some seven hundred sorties, and then, according to a report last June, “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.”
One reason these missions might be too difficult is that the United States is still spending too much time, money and intellectual energy preparing to fight a far more important conflict with a far deadlier enemy: global nuclear war with the Soviet Union. We may not be able to suppress the air defenses of a weakened dictatorship in the middle of a massive civil war, but we’re certainly more than prepared to take on the old USSR.
Well, maybe it’s not a plan to fight the Soviet Union, exactly, but the U.S. defense budget and the overall approach to the defense of the United States from foreign nuclear attack still seems rooted somewhere in the 1980s, a relic from the time of Rubik’s Cubes, Rick Springfield, and Ronald Wilson Reagan.
Last winter, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter made clear that the two U.S. defense efforts to be insulated as much as possible from sequestration would be Afghanistan and nuclear deterrence. Certainly, the protection of our men and women in the field was a natural and unarguable priority. But nuclear weapons? In Aspen last month, Carter put it this way: “I can't short the people who are at war in Afghanistan. I can't short nuclear deterrence. Submarines have to sail. You can't—we can't be unready as a nuclear force. You know, the presidential airplane needs to keep flying and so forth.”