Man, we’re a long way from 2004 if John Kerry is urging shock and awe against a Middle Eastern dictator over WMD and most Republicans are pounding the table against a reckless intervention.

Cycle of life, my friends.

Flash-forward to this past Wednesday. At a principals meeting in the White House situation room, Secretary of State John Kerry began arguing, vociferously, for immediate U.S. airstrikes against airfields under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime — specifically, those fields it has used to launch chemical weapons raids against rebel forces.

It was at this point that the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the usually mild-mannered Army General Martin Dempsey, spoke up, loudly. According to several sources, Dempsey threw a series of brushback pitches at Kerry, demanding to know just exactly what the post-strike plan would be and pointing out that the State Department didn’t fully grasp the complexity of such an operation.

Dempsey informed Kerry that the Air Force could not simply drop a few bombs, or fire a few missiles, at targets inside Syria: To be safe, the U.S. would have to neutralize Syria’s integrated air-defense system, an operation that would require 700 or more sorties. At a time when the U.S. military is exhausted, and when sequestration is ripping into the Pentagon budget, Dempsey is said to have argued that a demand by the State Department for precipitous military action in a murky civil war wasn’t welcome.

I’m intrigued by the fact that Kerry’s focused on Assad’s chemical weapons when they have little to do with O’s strategic reasons for getting involved there. The White House is stressing WMD lately because it’s a rallying point for public opinion; the reason for intervention isn’t because Obama’s worried about Assad gassing people on a mass scale, it’s because he’s afraid that Assad’s going to roll over the rebels and humiliate the U.S. in light of its “Assad must go” ultimatum if something isn’t done quickly to prop up the opposition. The U.S. will have to try to grab the regime’s sarin arsenal at some point if the rebels turn the tide and Assad gets desperate, but at the moment he has no real incentive to use unconventional weapons when the conventional ones are working just fine — unless the whole point is to defy and humiliate the United States for deciding to intervene. That’s one of the great potential backfires lurking here, that Assad and his pals in Tehran might decide to punish the U.S. for deciding to arm the rebels by really flouting the “red line” with more gas attacks. Although if they’re going to do that, you would think that those weapons will already have been dispersed and/or that more are on their way into the country from Iran. Frankly, I’m not sure why Kerry thinks that bombing airfields would cripple Assad’s ability to use WMD. Part of the sarin stockpile is in shells designed to be used by ground troops. Maybe he’s thinking that they should aim to cripple the largest delivery systems, like airborne bombs and SCUD warheads. They can’t stop Assad from using WMD but they can force him into smaller-scale delivery systems to minimize casualties.

Via the Standard, here’s O making the case against deeper intervention last night on Charlie Rose’s show. His bottom line: Unless you’re in the Situation Room, you can’t know how dangerous and complicated a Kerry-style plan of attack would be. I think he’s right about that, but seeing him use secrecy as a defense here so soon after he’s used secrecy as a reason not to explain the scope of NSA data-mining proves again that, when it comes to counterterrorism and foreign policy, the big public debate he’s always claiming to want always boils down to “trust me.” What if you don’t trust him?