The political uproar over the Benghazi terror attacks and the proposals for a no-fly zone over Syria renewed the fierce debate Sunday over the capabilities and limits on the use of U.S. military power in the region.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates accused critics of the U.S. response in Libya and proponents of U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war of holding “cartoonish” views on the U.S. military’s ability to shape events.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the U.S. could have sent an F-16 on a low-fly mission over Benghazi in an attempt to scare off the attackers, and he argued that the Israelis have already demonstrated that a U.S. no-fly zone over Syria could be imposed with limited risk.
The overlapping debates that played out on the Sunday talk shows bogged down over the political backlash, but there was agreement on at least two factors:
There was no “ready” force on alert in the region that was prepared to respond to an attack last Sept. 11 in Benghazi, or to attacks in Cairo, Khartoum, Tunis or any other diplomatic outpost, despite ongoing turmoil in the region.
There was also agreement that Russia’s determination to send advanced missiles to Syria would make imposition of a no-fly zone more problematic.
On CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Gates said critics of the Obama administration on the Benghazi response hold a "cartoonish impression of military capabilities and military forces."
"We don't have a ready force standing by in the Middle East, and so getting somebody there in a timely way would have been very difficult, if not impossible," said Gates, now the chancellor of the College of William and Mary.
Gates also scoffed at the idea that the U.S. could have scrambled an F-16 from a base in Italy to fly over Benghazi and "scare them with the noise or something." Gates said a fly-by ignored the "number of surface to air missiles that have disappeared from [former Libyan leader Moammar] Gadhafi's arsenals."
"I would not have approved sending an aircraft, a single aircraft, over Benghazi under those circumstances," Gates said.
On Syria, and the no-fly proposals, Gates said the U.S. should proceed with caution.
“We overestimate our ability to determine outcomes” in the Middle East, Gates said.
Gates said the U.S. should consider arming moderate elements among the groups seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad, but he warned that a no-fly zone could lead to more direct involvement by U.S. troops. Gates said that “U.S. military involvement, our direct involvement, our military involvement, would be a mistake.”
On ABC’s “This Week,” McCain offered opposing views on Libya and Syria.
“I find it impossible to comprehend why on September 11, the day we all know is so important, when there have been numerous warnings about the security at that consulate, that we didn't have forces that were capable of doing so,” McCain said of the lack of a ready force in the region.
McCain also questioned why “over a seven-and-a-half hour period, with all the assets we have in the region, we couldn't have an F-16 at low altitude, fly over those people who were attacking our consulate? Another question is -- why weren't there forces capable of going to defend that consulate?”
The recent Israeli airstrikes near Damascus to stop transfer by Syria of advanced missiles to the Hezbollah group in Lebanon showed that the U.S. would have little difficulty in imposing a no-fly zone, said McCain, who has long argued for arming the rebels in the civil war that has cost more than 70,000 lives.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned of the risks of a no-fly zone, but McCain said that the Israeli action “obviously blows a hole a mile wide in our Joint Chiefs of Staff, who prove again, if you don't want to do something, they can find reasons not to do it.”
Retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said the U.S. must weigh the risks carefully.
“The question is: Why do you want a no-fly zone, to do what? A no-fly zone in and of itself is probably not going to change the dynamic drastically,” Cartwright said on ABC’s “This Week.”
A no-fly zone “might be able to reduce the amount of offensive air that Assad is able to muster against the rebels that would be potentially what a no-fly zone could do. But a no-fly zone might enable -- and I think this is where Senator McCain is going -- getting rid of runways, getting rid of air defenses,” Cartwright said.
“But that's a slippery slope” that could lead to the U.S. becoming mired in the civil war, Cartwright said.
Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Warsaw that Moscow planned to follow through on a contract with Syria to deliver S-300 missiles, which are believed to be the most sophisticated surface-to-air defense systems in the Russian inventory.
The addition of the S-300s would bolster Syria’s already extensive air defenses, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was expected to go to Moscow this week to express concern over the missile sales to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Ahead of his trip to Washington this week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey would back a no-fly zone over Syria.
"Right from the beginning ... we would say 'yes,'" Erdogan told NBC news last week. “We want the United States to assume more responsibility and take further steps," Erdogan said.
Turkish airbases would be vital to any U.S. effort to maintain a no-fly zone. The Incirlik airbase near Adana in southern Turkey was used by U.S. aircraft to control a no-fly zone over northern Iraq after the Gulf War of 1991.