Fighting Words, Then and Now

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DoD Photo by Glenn Fawcett

Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee about Syria on Wednesday

There has been a flurry of red flags and cautions from senior Pentagon officials against the U.S. launching any military action against Syria. Given that we spear-headed a similar effort against Libya a year ago this month, you’re forgiven for forgetting that the same debate unspooled about attacking that country, too. It’s just that once we did, the pre-war arguments conveniently faded into history.

Let’s hop into Battleland’s Wayback Machine and compare what was being said about Libya in March 2011 with what’s being said about Syria in March 2012:

And the kinds of options that have been talked about in the press and elsewhere also have their own consequences and second- and third-order effects.

— Defense Secretary Robert Gates, March 1, 2011

As secretary of defense, before I recommend that we put our sons and daughters in uniform in harm’s way, I’ve got to make very sure that we know what the mission is. I’ve got to make very sure that we know whether we can achieve that mission, at what price and whether or not it’ll make matters better or worse.

— Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, March 7, 2012

We also have to think about, frankly, the use of the U.S. military in another country in the Middle East.

— Gates, March 1, 2011

I think the fundamental issue that is before us is whether or not the United States will go ahead and act unilaterally in that part of the world and engage in another war in the Muslim world unilaterally.

— Panetta, March 7, 2012

With respect to the no-fly zone specifically, it’s an extraordinarily complex operation to set up…Certainly if we were to set it up, if that were something that was decided to do, we’d have to work our way through doing it in a — in a safe manner and certainly not put ourselves in jeopardy…obviously, putting us in a position, you know, over air defenses that could actually harm — you know, take our — take those aviation assets out of the air.

— Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, March 1, 2011

The ability to do a single raid-like strike would be accessible to us. The ability to do a longer-term sustained campaign would be challenging and would have to be made in the context of other commitments around the globe…it would be an extended period of time and a great number of aircraft.

— General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, March 7, 2012

There’s a lot of, frankly, loose talk about some of these military options. And let’s just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. That’s the way you do a no-fly zone. And then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down. But that’s the way it starts…it also requires more airplanes than you would find on a single aircraft carrier. So it is a big operation in a big country.

— Gates, March 2, 2011

What we’ve talked about is that air defense system that is pretty sophisticated. But more importantly, a lot of it is located in populated areas. There would be some severe collateral damage going after those areas.

— Panetta, March 7, 2012

If you’re going to do something like that, you’ve got to assume it’s very capable. Obviously, we know something about their readiness, but you have to assume it’s very capable until proven otherwise.

— Mullen, March 2, 2011

They have approximately five times more sophisticated air defense systems than existed in Libya, covering one-fifth of the terrain. All of their air defenses arrayed on their western border, which is their population center. So five times the air defense of Libya, covering one-fifth of the terrain, and about 10 times more than we experienced in Serbia.

— Dempsey, March 7, 2012

There are those who say it’s not a civil war. There are those that say it is. I’m not going to say one or another, but the point is, it’s obviously the regime forces and those who are opposed to them and the outcome is uncertain.

— Mullen, March 10, 2011

You know, we faced somewhat the same situation in Libya…one of the first orders of business was to try to figure out who the opposition was, and where they were located, and what they were doing, what kind of coordination they have. Here, you’ve got triple the problem because there are so many diverse groups that are involved.

— Panetta, March 7, 2012

It really is for the president, the political leadership, the policymakers to make those decisions. And if he says go, we’re going. That’s not news. That’s what we do in the military.

— Mullen, March 10, 2011

We can do anything. The question is not about can we do it — it’s should we do it.

— Dempsey, March 7, 2012