Wait, what?

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s choice of the term “degrade” to describe an attack on Syria has been interpreted by Pentagon planners as guidance for a limited strike, according to senior military officials.

The weapon of choice is the Tomahawk cruise missile aboard four Navy destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean. Though powerful, the missiles alone would likely not be capable of crippling Bashar Assad’s regime, which is accused of using chemical weapons. The targets selected for attack are meant to punish Assad, not swing the tide in favor of rebels seeking his ouster, said a senior officer familiar with the planning. […]

The strike would be limited in scope and duration, Little said. The security of chemical weapons stockpiles is being taken into account by the Pentagon.

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.