An “unbelievably small, limited” strike?

In 2013, when the Obama administration was trying to convince Congress to authorize an attack on Syria to enforce its “red line’ against Assad using chemical weapons, Secretary of State John Kerry promised that the attack would be an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.” He often used the word “degrade,” rather than “destroy,” to describe the impact of the contemplated attack on Syria’s chemical weapons program.

Kerry received plenty of ridicule for proposing an “unbelievably small, limited” attack. In fairness, though, we should keep two points in mind.

First, Kerry used this phrase in response to strong resistance by Congress to any sort of attack on Syria. The strongest resistance came from Republicans. Tom Cotton was an honorable exception. Donald Trump (who I believe was a Republican five years ago) wasn’t. He tweeted that all the U.S. would gain nothing but “more debt and a possible long term conflict” from a strike.

Second, a very small, very limited attack was a reasonable initial response to Assad crossing the “red line.” I favored something more robust. However, there was a decent case for starting off small and seeing if that would be sufficient to deter future chemical attacks.

In fact, the Trump administration has opted for the Kerry approach. Our first attack, conducted last April, was confined to one air base. It was very small and very limited.

The attack last night was more expansive. It encompassed three facilities and used about twice the amount of weaponry employed in the first attack.

The goal of the latest attack was to degrade Assad’s chemical weapons capacity (the Pentagon used that word), not to destroy it. The administration concedes that it left some of Assad’s chemical weapons infrastructure untouched so as to avoid civilian casualties.

The attack was not an “unbelievably small, limited” effort, but it was smallish and limited.

As in 2013, I would have preferred something bigger. But it is altogether rational for the Trump administration to proceed cautiously and incrementally.

What bothers me is the partisanship that infects life and death foreign policy and national security decisions. In the mid 1990s, Republicans opposed our military intervention, via air strikes, in the Balkans (a very successful operation, as it turned out). As far as I could tell, there was little behind their opposition beyond the fact that President Clinton wanted to do it.

Many congressional Democrats, including most of the key ones, supported the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. But this seemed like a decision based mainly on political calculation. The moment the war seemed to become unpopular, the Dems jumped ship.

In 2013, as discussed above, Republicans took strong exception to Obama’s proposal to do what Trump is doing now with very little criticism from the GOP.

The original sin, so to speak, may have been then-governor Bill Clinton’s statement on how he would have voted on going to war with Iraq in 1991. Clinton said he would have voted to go to war if the vote was close, but thought the better arguments were against the war.

This profile in non-courage seems to have become the norm, and why not? Clinton went on to be elected president twice.

The unfortunate phenomenon I’ve just described has implications for the question of Congress’ role, if any, when an administration wants to use force overseas. Tim Kaine (remember him?) is saying that the Constitution does not allow Trump to launch strikes like the one last night without congressional approval. Some Republicans agree.

The question of congressional power in all spheres, but especially this one, has been contested for more than two centuries. It is always up for grabs.

The resolution of the question at any given time will always depend to some extent on the degree to which Congress is seen as competent to deal with the issues it claims the power to decide. These days, it’s increasingly difficult to take Congress seriously, much less to view it as competent to deal with matters of war and peace.

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