Debate over Syria Distracts Public from Serious Fiscal Challenges

President Obama made his case for military action against Syria to the American people on Tuesday for the country’s use of chemical weapons against its own people, despite Russian involvement that prompted Syria to agree to turn over any remaining chemical weapons and sign the international treaty banning such weapons. Currently, Syria is among five countries who have not adopted the treaty.

While it remains to be seen if Syria will follow through on its promise, some in Congress are looking to make political hay while the sun shines, and are using the possibility of military action as a bargaining chip in the increasingly contentious budget debate.

Just a few legislative days are left for Congress to work on a budget for the fiscal year beginning October 1.

Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Buck McKeon (R-CA25) said in an opinion piece published by the Wall Street Journal:

“I share President Obama’s concern about the barbaric use of chemical weapons on Syrian civilians. I also care deeply about U.S. standing in a region where credibility counts. When the president drew his red line, he put America’s cards on the table.”

McKeon added:

“However, I am equally concerned about the condition of a military that has been chewed up from budget cuts and years of fighting. Mr. Obama is now asking Congress to respond to the Assad regime’s brutality with military force. But the day before he asked Congress to authorize this mission, he told our troops that their salaries will be almost 1% less than expected next year.”

McKeon said he will ask for the president’s commitment to address sequestration in any deal on the debt ceiling. He said if the president could not make such a commitment, he will not vote to “send our over-stretched and under-funded military into action.”

There is no cost estimate available on how much this strike, or series of strikes against Syria could cost the U.S., but consider that to incur a 60-90 day operation, as was laid out by the pentagon:

  • Every cruise missile launched costs approximately $1.5 million and some say that it’s possible that hundreds could be fired at Syria.
  • The cost of keeping a carrier strike group in place is between $25 and $40 million per week. That could equate to between $325 and $520 million overall.

Any operation of this nature could mean “hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers.” General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a July letter to Congress laying out options for the situation in Syria.

In the same letter Dempsey also said:

“We must also understand risk – not just to our forces, but to our other global responsibilities. This is especially critical as we lose readiness due to budget cuts and fiscal uncertainly….Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid.”

McKeon makes an excellent point in the Wall Street Journal piece, as does Dempsey. It would be unwise to further stretch the nation’s military resources while still slashing the money that they need to accomplish whatever mission they are given.

In this particular case, the vast majority of Americans don’t favor action in Syria to begin with. In fact, it’s the most unfavorable military strike in 20 years. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll on the issue, 65 percent of Americans believe that Syria’s civil war is not our problem.

Addressing the nation on the eve of 9/11, the president said that the has asked Congress to postpone the vote for action in order to give diplomacy a chance, but that the strikes would be justified in order to teach Syria a lesson.

The president also said that “U.S. ideals and principles, as well as national security, are at stake in Syria.”

However, based on several national polls, including the Reuters/Ipsos poll, the majority of Americans don’t agree. Some believe that by spending so much time and effort focusing on Syria’s problem, the president and Congress aren’t focusing on bigger problems here at home.