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Is This the Weakest Argument Against a Syria Attack?

Is This the Weakest Argument Against a Syria Attack?

There are a lot of good reasons to oppose a United States military strike in Syria. It may do little to change the behavior of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It may invite retaliation on U.S. allies in the region such as Turkey and Israel. It may further entangle the U.S. in a conflict that has little to do with America.

But one rationale is making military experts do a double-take: Sequestration.

As the White House seeks Congressional authorization for a strike, it’s facing stiff opposition from a set of lawmakers that typically supports U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. These hawkish lawmakers don’t oppose President Obama’s geopolitical priorities or chemical weapons evidence. They think the Pentagon doesn’t have enough money in its half-trillion dollar budget to carry out a Syria strike given the $500 billion in across-the-board spending cuts facing the military in the next decade.

"We cannot keep asking the military to perform mission after mission with sequestration and military cuts hanging over their heads," Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Monday. "We have to take care of our own people first."

Sen. James Inhofe, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, agrees.  "No red line should have been drawn without the strategy and funding to support it," he said. "We must not forget this president has put us on the brink of a hollowed force. Our troops are stretched thin, the defense budget has been slashed to historic levels." Another hawkish Republican, Rep. Mike Turner, also cited sequestration as a rationale for voting against a Syria strike.

But analysts who’ve crunched the numbers on a stand-off strike — the type of limited operation the administration says it plans to carry out — say the Pentagon’s base budget — more than $500 billion — is plenty capable of covering the strike without significant sacrifice to military readiness elsewhere. A major reason for that: The money for a Syria strike has already been spent.

For instance, the Tomahawk cruise missiles have already been paid for and of the five Navy destroyers on station, four were already scheduled to be on deployment. "The increased marginal cost is really just the cost of fuel to keep one extra destroyer on deployment," said Chris Harmer, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, who favors intervention in Syria. "From the Navy perspective, this will be as inexpensive an operation in the near term as is possible."

Gordon Adams, who was in charge of national defense budgeting for the Clinton administration, agrees. "Incremental costs for operations, less than $100 million in my book," he told The Cable. (The additional missiles would be extra.) "The proxy would be the Clinton strike on Afghan training camps and the Sudan in 1998 – hardly noticed on the budgetary radar screen."

As it stands, the White House is in the midst of a Capitol Hill blitz to convince lawmakers to authorize a military strike against Syria. On Tuesday, it won a big victory with endorsements from House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor. However, a senior GOP aide tells The Cable that the Republican leadership won’t be whipping the vote, which leaves the White House vulnerable to defections by pro-military Republicans such as Inhofe, Turner and McKeon who might ordinarily support such an intervention.

The relatively modest cost of the effort has left some in Congress thinking the sequestration excuse is more political than budgetary.

"I was laughing hysterically at arguments that we shouldn’t do Syria strikes because of sequester," one Congressional aide told The Cable. "You can be against a strike for many reasons, but that one is pure bullshit."

Of course, arguments by the sequester doves could prove prescient if the Syrian intervention explodes into a larger military engagement. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned about the exorbitant costs of committing U.S. resources to a no fly zone. However, the White House insists its aims are limited. "I assure you nobody ends up being more war-weary than me," Obama said last week, noting that he was not mulling any option that would require "boots on the ground" or an extended campaign.

"This is going to be a contained, confined and surgical strike,"  Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat who has already had three briefings on Syria in the last week tells The Cable. " It’s not going to add significantly to the budget and you’re not going to need a supplemental funding resolution as we did in Iraq or Afghanistan."

Of course, there is the issue of the future Pentagon budget having to account for new cruise missiles. But, as Harmer noted, cruise missiles "are pretty cheap these days."

"Once those TLAM [Tomahawk Land Attack Missile] get fired, they will have to be replaced in the budget ‘out years’- and that will be a cost that has to be accounted for in future budgets – if the Navy expends 100 TLAM in a strike on Syria, it is going to need to buy an extra 100 TLAM next year, or the year after, through the normal budget process," he said. "The ‘flyaway’ cost is somewhere around $700,000. It is not chump change, but for the impact the weapon has, it is pretty cost effective."