“We are not asking America to go to war,” Secretary of State John Kerry said during his testimony on Capitol Hill this week about the Obama administration’s desire to launch a military attack against Syria. “I don’t believe that we’re going to war. I just don’t believe that,” he said. “That’s not what we’re doing here. The president is asking for permission to take a limited military action, yes, but one that does not put Americans in the middle of the battle.”
If this isn’t war, then what is it?
This will be “a limited and focused operation,” said Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, assuring a skeptical Congress.
Welcome to a new era of warfare, one borne out of two protracted and deadly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a shrinking budget and a very war-weary American public. To planners at the Pentagon, the mission to “deter and degrade” the use and proliferation of chemical weapons and send a message to Syrian President Bashar al Assad is not war. It’s a “limited mission.”
At a briefing at the Pentagon on Thursday, Press Secretary George Little was loathe to call any possible military action in Syria “war.”
“I’ll let Secretary Kerry speak for himself, obviously. But what I think he was getting at, if I may be so bold,” Little said when asked whether military action in Syria would be considered war. “But I think what he was saying was that this is not going to be a long, protracted, drawn-out conflict akin to Iraq or Afghanistan. What we’re talking about here, again, is a limited mission, limited in scope, limited in duration and no boots on the ground. So I think that’s the point he was trying to make.”
Asked again whether a strike against Syria would be “an act of war,” Little said, “I’m not going to get into those kinds of labels here today. This would be an action that would be consistent with American law and would absolutely comport with the legitimacy of international norm against the use of chemical weapons.”
A third question was more blunt: “If another country launched cruise missiles against the United States, would you consider that an act of war?”
“Again, I’m not going to get into labels, but — and I’m not going to get into the hypotheticals — but let me be very clear, we take our right of self-defense very seriously and naturally we would defend ourselves,” Little said.
The preferred standard operating procedure now is to keep world order through limited engagements, using naval and air assets, cyber and drone technology, small, elite counterterror units — anything but U.S. boots on the ground — to maintain U.S. national security interests across the globe.
Syria, with its potential to drag the U.S. into another protracted war, will be this new strategy’s first test.
Still, leaders at the Pentagon who are planning for a “limited strike” are aware of another mission sold as limited and targeted: to hunt down al Qaeda, the group that planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks from a mountainous border region in Central Asia. That operation had broad support and specific targets. Nobody calls Afghanistan a limited mission anymore. It is now the longest war in U.S. history.