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.