Via the Free Beacon, Ed mentioned this already but a foreign-policy soundbite this immortal — maybe the greatest since “leading from behind” — requires video, especially with Assad claiming that his response might not be quite as teeny tiny. Kerry’s Syria pronouncements are aimed at three audiences — the majority of Congress, which worries about mission creep if they greenlight this fiasco; the McCainian hawkish minority, which wants mission creep in the sense that they want more support for the rebels in the name of regime change; and of course Assad and Iran, who need to have the fear of God put into them if they’re going to think twice about using gas again. How do you satisfy each of those audiences in your public pronouncements if you’re the Secretary of State? I don’t know, and neither does this guy, apparently. Last week he assured Chris Hayes that one happy consequence of U.S. intervention will be to empower moderate rebels as an alternative to the jihadis, which made it sound like America’s goals in this were broader than simply bloodying Assad’s nose for using WMD. Good news for McCainians, not so good for everyone else, and it’s that “everyone else” in Congress that’s their big problem right now. So here’s Waffles waffling back towards the doves by promising that any attack will be “unbelievably small,” which is just what you want to hear if you’re prepared to gamble your House seat on a big show of American muscle abroad.
But since the purpose of the raid is – and no-one sensible disputes this, I think – just to send a message to Assad and other tyrants that the use of chemical weapons is something up with which the international community will not put it makes very little sense to send a message that’s so unbelievably small neither Assad nor his counterparts elsewhere will feel the need to read or otherwise get it. And if the message is not received it has not, in this instance, been sent either.
And since, moreover, the case for military action also rests upon the sense that American (and western) credibility is on the line vis a vis Syria (and all future foreign entanglements) it seems foolish to make a virtue out of the fact that this action is actually going to be, as Kerry puts it, unbelievably small. What price credibility then?
Here’s a more colorful way to think about it:
The strike, as envisioned, would be limited in the number of targets and done within a day or two. It could be completed in one fell swoop with missiles, said one senior official familiar with the weapons involved. A smaller, follow-on strike could be launched if targets aren’t sufficiently damaged.
A second senior official, who has seen the most recent planning, offered this metaphor to describe such a strike: If Assad is eating Cheerios, we’re going to take away his spoon and give him a fork. Will that degrade his ability to eat Cheerios? Yes. Will it deter him? Maybe. But he’ll still be able to eat Cheerios.
As goofy as that it, it’s a nifty way to sum up what they’re going for here. They don’t want to stop him from eating Cheerios altogether, just make things a bit harder for him so that they can semi-plausibly claim success later. The McCainians will trumpet that we’ve “degraded” Assad’s capabilities, doves will sigh with relief that we haven’t been dragged in deeper, and the White House can rest assured that they didn’t do anything (like killing Assad) that would cause too much extra chaos in Syria. Remember, the U.S. goal here isn’t regime change, as much as O pays lip services to that from time to time. The goal is to negotiate a settlement between Sunnis and Alawites that will preserve an uneasy balance of power. Kill Assad and that probably becomes less likely, either because the regime will start to implode despite Iran’s best efforts to hold it together or because the Shiites, as retaliation, will begin to behave even more ruthlessly. If either side “wins” on the battlefield by rolling over the other, sectarian cleansing is likely to result. The White House figures, probably rightly, that if a peace deal is reached, having Assad in charge to restrain the Shiites will be more helpful in preventing that cleansing than taking him out now would be.
Your homework assignment is the RAND study concluding that there’s no guarantee that a conflict designed to be “unbelievably small” would stay that way for long. Exit question via Jim Geraghty: Didn’t the White House … just expand the Pentagon’s target list in Syria last week? Cruise missiles, jets, bombers — when Kerry says “unbelievably small,” maybe he means that literally. I.e. when they call it “small,” it’s unbelievable.
Update: Maverick is unhappy:
Kerry says #Syria strike would be "unbelievably small" – that is unbelievably unhelpful
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) September 9, 2013