The power to push for war returns to the State Department

The Secretary of State is leading the push for war in Syria – a marked contrast to the last major US intervention

US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Sept. 3, 2013, in Washington.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

"What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?" US Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright reportedly famously asked Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell when the two clashed over what the United States might or might not do during the Bosnian crisis in 1992.

Powell was leery of having American troops involved in a regional conflict in which the outcome was unclear and military force would be applied in a limited fashion.

Now, as before the George W. Bush years, the US military has decidedly taken a backseat to the State Department in its push for military action in Syria. This has allowed Secretary of State John Kerry to take center stage in the administration's handling of the latest international calamity.

The sight of Kerry holding forth in hours-long congressional hearings while Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, offer subdued assessments of likely consequences of US military action is a marked contrast to the last major U.S. intervention abroad, the invasion of Iraq.

Then–Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other hawkish political appointees in Bush's White House led the campaign for war in 2002, calling on Gen. Tommy Franks, then head of US Central Command, to furnish the fewest possible American boots on the ground in Iraq while the US military was fighting a war in Afghanistan.

Rumsfeld and the Pentagon had a major ally in the White House, Vice President Dick Cheney, says Richard Armitage, who was Powell's deputy secretary of state at the time. Armitage served in the US Navy during the Vietnam War before becoming a government official.

"In most of the issues during Secretary Powell's tenure we prevailed, even to the extent of going back for a resolution in the UN Security Council, which the vice president and the secretary of defense didn't want," Armitage told Al Jazeera America. "It was only in the Middle East and Iraq that we got into trouble, and that was because the vice president was pushing very hard."

The resurgence of the State Department as the lead in overseas military intervention, says Armitage, is "a return to normalcy."

"Historically, it has always been the complaint of those in the Pentagon that the State Department wanted to get them into war," he says, referring to disputes between past heads of the State Department, like George Shultz and Madeleine Albright, and their counterparts in the Defense Department, Caspar Weinberger and Colin Powell.

Back then, both Weinberger and Powell were reluctant to commit American troops to other nations' conflicts. Weinberger was so opposed to the use of force that he famously formulated his "six major tests" to apply when weighing the possibility of using US forces overseas.

Among them: that US forces should  be committed to overseas combat only if it is vital to the national interest and that there should be clearly defined military and political objectives to any engagement. His sixth and final point was unambiguous: "The commitment of US forces to combat should be the last resort."

Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright, during the Clinton administration.
L. to R.:Kevin Larkin/AFP/Getty Images;Chris Kleponis/AFP/Getty Images

Powell wrote that Albright"s question about using American troops overseas almost gave him "an aneurysm," adding, "American GIs are not toy soldiers to be moved around on some global game board."

Now the post-Bush Pentagon and Defense Department are led by different men, more concerned with a fatigued military force still committed to a war in Afghanistan through the end of 2014 and sequestration cuts to the defense budget that will reportedly make it harder to respond to hostilities abroad.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said last week that President Barack Obama's military options in Syria may increasingly become more limited as budget cuts begin to hurt.

"Whatever course of action our nation decides to take on Syria, I do know this: The maritime options are flexible, and they are significant, and they are swift, and they are sovereign," Mabus is quoted as telling an audience at the National Defense University on Sept. 11. "But unless we act to address the damage of continuing resolutions and sequestration, they are options which may be limited or just not available in the future."

With a diffident Defense apparatus pushing back, the State Department has again taken the reins of clamoring for possible U.S. military action overseas. Alongside Kerry, current US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power and National Security Adviser Susan Rice have been the public faces and voices of the administration, keenly calling for decisive action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Foreign-policy analyst Mark Perry called the trio "cruise-missile liberals" who "in some respects (are) worse than the conservatives."  

"They think they can use power to effect good. They see (the military) as a tool," he said.

In that respect, they would be following in the footsteps of past State Department officials. The US military and Hagel, on the other hand, now mirror the historical stance of past Defense officials in their reluctance to become involved in a seemingly open-ended engagement in Syria and the region.

Retired Army general Robert Scales recently penned an op-ed for The Washington Post in which he commented that both Dempsey's and Hagel's appearances at the congressional hearings proved their unwillingness to be involved in another war and that this reticence reflected the opinions of most current military leaders.

"They are repelled by the hypocrisy of a media blitz that warns against the return of Hitlerism but privately acknowledges that the motive for risking American lives is our 'responsibility to protect' the world's innocents," Scales writes.

In a swipe at Obama's most senior diplomats, including Power, who has passionately advocated for US intervention to prevent genocides, Scales adds, "Prospective US action in Syria is not about threats to American security. The US military's civilian masters privately are proud that they are motivated by guilt over slaughters in Rwanda, Sudan and Kosovo and not by any systemic threat to our country."

"In this case the civilian aspects are again in the lead, and the military is saluting and saying 'We're doing what we're told to do,'" said Stanley Sloane, a visiting scholar at Middlebury College and former analyst at the CIA.

This attempt at dominance by the State Department may restore the balance in the civilian-military relationship, which has surged and ebbed on the strength of hawkish generals or diplomats and presidents deciding between the two.

"In some ways, that's normal for them to make the national-security decisions," Sloane told Al Jazeera America.

The conflicts abroad may be different today, but the disputes in Washington appear as old as history itself.  

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter