'Unbelievably Small'

"This is our moment's moral test. And therefore... "
Associated Press

[Please see update below.] Anyone who talks in public says some things wrong. It's not fair to seize on these inevitable slip-ups and screw-ups when you know what the person "meant" to say. It's also not productive, because an increasing gaffe-watch by the press makes public figures even more likely to muffle their thoughts in the gauze of protective bland-speak.

When one of these momentary stumbles nonetheless takes on a life of its own, it is usually because, innocent as it might be on its own, it crystallizes some larger impression people were developing. Most obvious examples: "depends what the meaning of 'is' is" / "which newspapers do I read? all of them!" / "voted for it before I voted against it" / "here's my three-point list: 1, 2, ..."

That is of course the significance of today's unfortunate stumble by Secretary of State John Kerry, who said in London that any strike in Syria would be "unbelievably small."

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.

You know what he meant. He was advancing the argument for a contained, "surgical," pinpoint, etc., effort that would be big enough to let Assad and future dictators know the cost of using chemical weapons, yet not so broad as to entrap the United States in the ongoing (horrific) civil war. If the two words that had come to his mind in real time had been "unbelievably precise" rather than "unbelievably small," no one would have blinked.

But this is the undertaking that the same Secretary Kerry just finished telling us was our moment's moral crossroads, our Munich. And we will rise to that challenge with a response that is "unbelievably small."

The concern all along about the administration's plans has been the gap between the problem it describes -- moral outrage, gassing of children, overall carnage -- and the response it is proposing. You can talk about that disconnection: Will an attack make a difference? Might it make things worse? I've tried to look into such questions in the posts gathered here. Or you could run back-to-back clips of the same Cabinet secretary saying "this is Munich" and "unbelievably small." It's unfair to the admirable and usually eloquent Kerry, but in a moment's slip-up he crystallized a counter-argument.*

Also relevant to the gap between moral arguments and practical responses, consider these comments by James Mattis, who recently retired as a four-star Marine Corps general. I mentioned earlier that he is someone whose counsel I would want to hear about Syria. Here is how the Washington Post quoted him last week:

The recently retired head of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. James Mattis, said last month at a security conference that the United States has “no moral obligation to do the impossible” in Syria. “If Americans take ownership of this, this is going to be a full-throated, very, very serious war,” said Mattis, who as Centcom chief oversaw planning for a range of U.S. military responses in Syria.

UPDATE: In an item yesterday, I quoted a reader who said that Obama had somehow let himself be trapped with an artificially narrow range of options for Syria. Instead, the reader said, Obama should learn from JFK's deliberate broadening of options during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Now the man who literally wrote the book about the Cuban Missile Crisis (Essence of Decision), my one-time professor Graham Allison, has weighed in with a very illuminating post on how Obama might expand his range of choices. Please do read it.

* Everyone can think of the comparable unfair-but-damaging slip-up for Kerry, overall so accomplished as an orator and debater, during the 2004 campaign. Hint: an allusion to it appears in paragraph 2 of this post.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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