Then and now: Mitch McConnell's epic reversal on bombing Syria

I hate to pick on him, and not just because he’s basking today justifiably in the glory of his greatest accomplishment as majority leader, getting a conservative confirmed to fill Antonin Scalia’s seat. He’s being singled out here but he doesn’t deserve to be: McConnell’s epic flip-flop on the virtues of bombing Assad makes him no different from many other Republicans in Congress, as this cringe-inducing CNN piece details. In fact, the atrocity in Syria this week has inadvertently created an almost laboratory-quality experiment in partisanship. It’s the same country, the same war, the same foreign leader, even the same transgression, a chemical-weapons attack that killed civilians. (One difference: The 2013 attack was even deadlier than this attack was.)

And yet the reactions within the GOP are very different. How come?

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan also endorsed Trump’s actions in a statement released Thursday night. “Tonight the United States responded,” he said. “This action was appropriate and just.”

But in 2013, he too opposes Obama’s proposal to attack Syria, saying, “I believe the President’s proposed military strike in Syria cannot achieve its stated objectives. In fact, I fear it will make things worse.”…

Rep. Ted Poe of Texas issued a statement declaring the administration “swift and decisive retaliation was an appropriate and proportional response to this horrific crime.” But Poe had a remarkably different view of Syria action in 2013 when he argued the administration didn’t have the legal authority to attack Syria. Poe introduced a bill which would prohibit the use of funds for military action in Syria unless authorized by Congress.

There are more examples at the link, including a cameo by Marco Rubio. And of course there’s the small matter that, errrrrrr, Trump himself was an ardent opponent of intervention at the time. Say what you will about his disappointed populist-nationalist fans, at least they’re standing on principle in opposing yesterday’s strikes.

Take three and a half minutes to watch McConnell debate himself in the clips below, the first from 2013 when Republicans denounced an impending U.S. attack as a reckless intrusion into a chaotic war in which we had no national interest and the other from this morning, in which McConnell crows about Trump showing our Sunni allies that “America is back.” One conservative pal on Twitter suggested that there is a distinction between now and then, namely, Republicans can trust this commander-in-chief to prosecute an intervention in Syria more than they could the feckless Obama. That’s fine spin, but it’s not the GOP’s spin. Watch McConnell 2013 and you’ll see nothing there about Obama being too weak or noncommittal to be trusted with warmaking power. He rattles off a series of strategic reasons to stay out of Syria, all of them by now familiar because they’re all sound points: There’s no American interest, there are too many unknowns long-term, there’s no post-attack strategy to end the war, and there’s not even agreement on whether we should merely wound Assad or try to take him out. They all apply just as forcefully, at least right now, to Trump. And yet, the partisan imperative trumps them all, no pun intended. When McConnell was asked about his shift this morning, this is what he said:

“Secretary Kerry, I guess in order to reassure the left-leaning members of his own party, said it would sort be like a pinprick. You know, it really would not be of any great consequence. I don’t know whether he had in mind knocking out a couple of camels or what. But this was a strike that was well-planned, well-executed, went right to the heart of the matter, which is using chemical weapons. So had I seen that kind of approach by President Obama, I’m sure I would’ve signed up.”

If Trump bombing a single airfield and not even doing enough damage to disable it doesn’t count as a “pinprick,” nothing does. It’s the same sort of “unbelievably small” attack Kerry promised insofar as it’s designed to rap Assad on the knuckles, hopefully to deter him from using WMDs again, but not designed to topple him from power, which would destabilize the country further and create an even bigger mess. It’s the same situation. The only thing that’s changed is the president’s partisan ID. In fact, you could argue that the case for attacking in 2013 was stronger than it is now. The war was younger then, and some western military punishment for Assad might have put enough fear into him about using chemical weapons to have averted future WMD attacks, including this week’s in Idlib.

A better spin for the GOP than “Obama weak, Trump strong!” or “America is back now, but didn’t need to be back then” is to focus on ISIS. As Benjy Sarlin notes, ISIS was just beginning to assert real power in Syria and Iraq at around the time of the 2013 chemical attack. Damaging Assad at that moment could have ended up weakening the regime to the point where ISIS took over the entire country in the aftermath. That’s no longer a concern; ISIS is much diminished and facing a Kurdish assault on its capital, so there’s less to worry about in giving Assad a bloody nose. With the jihadis fading, it’s arguably all the more important to remind Assad that he doesn’t have a free hand to operate however he likes. Hence last night’s strikes. That wouldn’t be honest spin — the honest spin is that the GOP’s backing Trump because he’s a Republican — but it’s better than this stupid “pinprick” distinction.