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One Unconvincing Argument Against Striking Syria

There's a lot of chatter this morning about the big piece above the fold on the front page of today's Washington Post laying out the deep misgivings of many in the military about launching an attack against Syria to punish it for the regime's apparent use of chemical weapons against its own people. These misgivings are of course to be reckoned with. But one particular reservation in the piece struck me as rather curious:

Still, many in the military are skeptical. Getting drawn into the Syrian war, they fear, could distract the Pentagon in the midst of a vexing mission: its exit from Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are still being killed regularly. A young Army officer who is wrapping up a year-long tour there said soldiers were surprised to learn about the looming strike, calling the prospect “very dangerous.” 

“I can’t believe the president is even considering it,” said the officer, who like most officers interviewed for this story agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity because military personnel are reluctant to criticize policymakers while military campaigns are being planned. “We have been fighting the last 10 years a counterinsurgency war. Syria has modern weaponry. We would have to retrain for a conventional war.”

First of all, neither President Obama nor anyone around him is talking about a "conventional war" in Syria. Now, it's possible that the reporter's question to the officer was framed with the possibility that missile strikes could lead to a broader engagement. We can debate whether that would be a good or terrible outcome, but the notion that it would require some kind of comprehensive reshaping of the U.S. military strains credulity. Even in a time of retrenchment, the U.S. spent more on its military last year than the next 10 countries combined. The U.S. has more than 200 F-15, more than 1,000 F-16 and nearly 200 F-22 fighter jets. It has ten aircraft carriers, 62 destroyers, and 53 attack submarines. It has more than 6000 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and more than 6000 M-1 Abrams tanks. And it has more than 1.4 million active duty military personnel and more than 800,000 reserves. Yes, Syria has "modern weaponry," thanks to its sponsors in Russia and Iran. But that modern weaponry was on the verge of being vanquished by a grab-bag assortment of lightly armed rebels not so long ago.

As for the notion that the U.S. would need to "retrain for conventional war" because it has spent "fighting the last 10 years a counterinsurgency war"—seriously? First of all, that war that started a little more than 10 years ago was launched very much as a conventional war, with nearly 300,000 coalition troops massed in the Gulf region. Yes, it grew over time into a counter-insurgency, but our military struggled so much with that shift precisely because it is so clearly constructed with conventional wars in mind. Now that the military has belatedly adapted to the realities of what it faced in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are to believe that, even with its enormous arsenal at its disposal, it is no longer up for conventional warfare? Let's hope the Chinese don't find out.

This is not to make light of the tremendous strains the military has been placed under for the past decade, not least with budget sequestration now hitting hard. And it's not to say we should be barreling off to Damascus -- count me in the conflicted camp on this one. It's just to say that when you have, by far, the largest military that the world has ever known, pleading the inability to fight a "conventional war" is a bit much. You can have a $676 billion budget, and you can keep playing around with a bungled $396 billion next-generation fighter jet program. But you don't get to do that and play underdog at the same time.

Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him @AlecMacGillis.