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The costs of intervention

It is nighttime in mid-July in a forest somewhere in North Carolina, but the scene is far from the quiet idyll that we’d all expect. More than 4,000 paratroopers from Fort Bragg’s 82nd Airborne Division are in the heat of battle, an exercise designed to simulate a chemical weapons raid. Their imagined setting: Syria.
Maj. Gen. John Nicholson was frank: “As we look at the evolving situation — Syria and other places around the world — we’re preparing to deal with the reality of securing chemical weapons.”
This is the 82nd’s job. The country wouldn’t expect anything less, and North Carolina is fortunate to be home to such an elite and essential force. For strategic purposes, though, the real action would come a week later on Capitol Hill.
On July 19, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs (and a Duke alumnus), offered an unvarnished perspective to the Senate Armed Services’ Committee on intervening in Syria. “Some options may not be feasible in time or cost without compromising our security elsewhere,” he wrote. “Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next.”
That’s about as close as you’ll come to hearing the top brass say, “We’ve seen this before, and it’s a bad idea.” Dempsey’s right.

Cost matters. Dempsey pegged the cost of a mission like the one the 82nd exercised at “well over $1 billion per month.” He didn’t explain the underpinnings of this number, but he did describe “controlling chemical weapons” as a step above a no-fly zone, and that sort of mission cost $608 million over a two week span in Libya. Incurring such costs today would run counter to our efforts to reduce federal spending, including at the Pentagon.
Congress and the White House still could agree to this sort of new spending even within the confines of today’s savings law because that law exempts such contingencies from regular budget accounting. But a dollar spent still counts somewhere and, in this case, it would count against the very debt we’re trying to control.
Meanwhile, it’s much harder to find the cost ceiling for a scenario like the one the 82nd exercised. Intervening with boots on the ground to secure elusive weapons of mass destruction doesn’t always lend itself to a neat, pre-planned exit. There’s no reason to challenge Dempsey’s estimate north of a billion dollars per month, assuming that the exit plan would hold up. But that isn’t his assumption.
Dempsey’s words bear the sting of fresh, hard-learned lessons: “We have learned from the past 10 years, however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state. We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action. … Deeper involvement is hard to avoid.”
Read: Iraq. By the very narrowest measure, that war was a $825 billion expense.
Cost matters, on the other hand, only to the extent that we have a choice on this issue. The history of our national security is studded with conflicts we had to fight.

Syria isn’t one of them. The security of our country is not so threatened by Syria’s collapse that war is necessary, nor is it threatened enough that we would be right to choose war. This in no way diminishes the real challenge — chemical weapons can be smuggled — or the unconscionable violence Bashar Assad has unleashed on his countrymen. But national security is about balancing risk, and the risks of putting the 82nd’s boots on the ground outweigh those imposed by other alternatives we have.
Indeed, Dempsey pointed out that choosing this mission would compromise other elements of our strategy. Washington has embarked on a comprehensive pivot to Asia and, while the Pentagon should be only a supporting contributor to that strategy, another conflict in the Middle East would subvert our pivot.
Nor would that be the only compromise. Specifically within the military domain, the Pentagon’s 2012 strategy explicitly states that “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.”
It would be possible to conduct a raid like the one the 82nd exercised without following it with a large-scale, prolonged stability operation, but being prepared for unintended consequences would nevertheless mean increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corps again.
Forces in North Carolina are the very tip of our country’s spear. The 82nd Airborne Division is a hallmark of that force, and the chemical weapons raid it exercised exemplifies its work well. Our state is proud to host them, and our country is grateful to have them. We also have an obligation to think very soberly about how we use them. Today, we need to stick with Dempsey’s sage insights.

Matthew Leatherman is a resident fellow at the International Affairs Council of North Carolina in Raleigh. This column first appeared in the News & Observer of Raleigh.

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