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McConnell Revises History on Syria

By Robert Farley. This article was first published no fackcheck.org.

Sen. Mitch McConnell revised history when explaining why he supported President Trump’s missile strike on Syria but opposed President Obama’s call for a targeted strike against Syria after a chemical weapons incident in 2013.

McConnell, the Senate majority leader, said Trump’s strike was “well-executed, went right to the heart of the matter, which is using chemical weapons. So, had I seen that — that kind of approach by President Obama, I’m sure I would’ve signed up.” By contrast, McConnell recalled then-Secretary of State John Kerry describing Obama’s proposed military strike as “like a pinprick” that would not have “any great consequence.”

In fact, what Obama proposed to Congress back in 2013 was very similar in scope to the attack on Syria undertaken by Trump. In a televised address, Obama called for “a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective: deterring the use of chemical weapons and degrading Assad’s capabilities.” Obama said, “The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”

McConnell isn’t the only Republican who has changed his tune, as Politico documented in its story on Trump’s own change of heart. As we wrote recently, President Trump repeatedly tweeted in 2013 that Obama should not launch a military strike against Syria.

McConnell argued several times in a press conference on April 7 that what was proposed back in 2013 was a “pinprick,” as opposed to the strike Trump ordered on April 6.

Reporter, April 7: Senator, you have opposed military intervention in Syria in the past, as recently as 2013. What — what makes last night different and why do you support this?

McConnell: Yeah, let me tell you the difference.

Secretary Kerry, I guess in order to reassure the left-leaning members of his own party, said it would sort of be like a pinprick. You know, really would not be of any great consequence. I don’t know whether he had in mind knocking out a tent and a couple of camels or what.

But this — 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 — that kind of approach by President Obama, I’m sure I would’ve signed up.

McConnell used the term “pinprick” twice more in the press conference to contrast Trump’s strike to what was proposed by the Obama administration in 2013.

McConnell:  I think the strike [ordered by Trump] was well-planned, well-executed, was certainly more than a pinprick and sends a message not only to Assad that using chemical weapons again is something he cannot do with impunity, but I think it also reassures our Sunni Arab allies that America is back in terms of playing a leadership role and trying to be constructive in a variety of different places around the world, as well as a message to Iran and North Korea and the Russians that America intends to lead again. So I commend the president for this decision. I think it’s entirely correct.

… The vice president called me last night … explained the rationale, how they were doing it and I thought it made a lot of sense and would be a strike that would be noticed, not some kind of pinprick and be directly related to the reason the tomahawks were sent in the first place, the use of chemical weapons.

Let’s revisit how things unfolded in 2013. In August of that year, a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs killed more than 1,400 people, an act the U.S. determined with “high confidence” was conducted by the Assad government.

Obama considered a unilateral strike against Syria but ultimately decided to seek approval from Congress.

McConnell was among those who voiced opposition to a military strike.

“The president’s delayed response was to call for a show of force, for targeted, limited strikes against the regime,” McConnell said then. “We have been told that the purpose of these strikes is to deter and degrade the Assad regime’s ability to use chemical weapons … But let’s be very clear about something. These attacks, monstrous as they are, were not a direct attack against the United States or one of its treaty allies.”

McConnell said such a strike would not deter Assad from using conventional weapons against his own people. He expressed a concern that “degrading Assad’s control of these weapons” might make it easier for groups like al Qaeda to get hold of them. McConnell further warned that “the unintended consequences of this strike could very well be a new cycle of escalation, which then drags us into a larger war that we’re all seeking to avoid.”

So what exactly was Obama proposing? At his press conference, McConnell said he recalled Kerry assuring wary Democrats that “it would sort of be like a pinprick.” That’s not exactly accurate.

During a press conference in London on Sept. 9, 2013, Kerry did outline what he called an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort” that would “hold Bashar al-Assad accountable without engaging in troops on the ground or any other prolonged kind of effort.”

Kerry, Sept. 9, 2013: We will be able to hold Bashar al-Assad accountable without engaging in troops on the ground or any other prolonged kind of effort in a very limited, very targeted, short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons without assuming responsibility for Syria’s civil war. That is exactly what we are talking about doing – unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.

Obama specifically assured that a strike would not be a “pinprick.”

“The U.S. does not do pinpricks,” Obama said in a Sept. 9, 2013, interview with NBC News. “Our military is the greatest the world has ever known. And when we take even limited strikes, it has an impact on a country like Syria.”

That sentiment was echoed by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Sept. 4, 2013. “The president has said … this would not be a pinprick. Those were his words. This would be a significant strike that would, in fact, degrade his [Assad’s] capability.”

When it appeared the measure seeking military authorization did not have enough votes to pass, Obama asked then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to postpone the vote. The following day, in televised remarks to the nation, Obama reiterated his case for a “limited strike” that would not include ground troops nor “a prolonged air campaign.”

Obama, Sept. 10, 2013: I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo. This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective: deterring the use of chemical weapons and degrading Assad’s capabilities.

Others have asked whether it’s worth acting if we don’t take out Assad. As some members of Congress have said, there’s no point in simply doing a pinprick strike in Syria.

Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.

Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver. I don’t think we should remove another dictator with force. We learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next. But a targeted strike can make Assad or any other dictator think twice before using chemical weapons.

But Obama said he had decided to postpone the vote to pursue — with assistance from Syria’s ally, Russia — a “diplomatic path.” That later resulted in an agreement between the United States and Russia to have Syria turn over its chemical weapons to international inspectors.

So what’s different about what Obama was proposing to Congress — and McConnell opposed — and the strike that Trump authorized?

“I don’t think it was much different at all,” Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert in the use of military force, told us via email. “The war however is at a much different place. I think both U.S. presidents have found reasonable ways to address the chemical threat — and, gradually, the ISIS threat — and, to date, no good way to address the broader challenge of the war.”

At a United Nations Security Council meeting on April 7, Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador  to the U.N., said the U.S. took what she called “a very measured step ” in the airstrike. “We are prepared to do more,” Haley said. “but we hope that will not be necessary.”

At his press conference on April 7, McConnell was asked whether he anticipated there would be further military action “or did you get the sense that this was a one-time event?”

“No, I think this … strike was related to the use of chemical weapons only,” McConnell said. “So I don’t — I don’t interpret this as a first step toward anything else in particular other than trying to eliminate or at least to make sure there are — that he knows there are consequences for doing this again.”

Later, McConnell reiterated that he thought the intent and scope of the strike was clear, to send the message.

“You don’t use chemical weapons without consequences,” he said. “I think that’s a pretty clear message and I don’t necessarily read into that a larger strategy in the area, but they certainly want to try to prevent the mass killing of innocent people by the use of chemical weapons.”

In other words, McConnell was praising a strike that was limited, did not commit ground troops, and with the expectation that further military action would not be necessary. McConnell now says he didn’t support Obama’s plan for a military strike in 2013 because Kerry said it “would sort of be like a pinprick.” But what Kerry and Obama were proposing was similar to the kind of limited strike that Trump ordered, and that McConnell now supports.


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