It’s not often that a secretary of state in a single press conference makes one statement that severely undercuts the administration’s chances of winning a crucial vote in Congress and another that offers the administration a cosmetic way out of severe difficulties of its own making. But John Kerry managed to do that in London Monday. It’s a second example of policymaking-off-the-top-of-the-head, the first being Barack Obama’s decision, made during a Friday evening walk around the White House grounds with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, at the start of a three-day holiday weekend, to seek congressional authorization of the use of military force in Syria.
Kerry’s first statement was made in response to a 46-word question that referenced the widespread opposition to military action among voters in Britain, France and the United States. In the midst of a 553-word reply, Kerry said, “We will be able to hold Bashar Assad accountable without engaging in troops on the ground or any other prolonged kind of effort in a very limited, very targeted, very short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons without assuming responsibility for Syria’s civil war. That is exactly what we’re talking about doing – unbelievably small, limited kind of effort” (emphasis added). To which Sen. John McCain tweeted, “Kerry says #Syria strike would be ‘unbelievably small’ - that is unbelievably unhelpful.” Unhelpful, at least, in getting Republican votes, including McCain’s, for authorizing military force. Why should members of Congress take an unpopular position for a use of military force that is “unbelievably small”? Kerry was obviously attempting to mollify dovishly inclined Democrats. But there aren’t enough of them to pass a resolution in either the Senate or the House.
Kerry’s second statement came in response to an earlier 117-word question that ended with “is there anything at this point that his [Assad’s] government could do or offer that would stop an attack?” At the beginning of his 306-word reply, Kerry said, “Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that.” To which he immediately added, the quite plausible qualifier, “but he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”
Uh, not so fast, Mr. Secretary. The Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov quickly promised that his government would urge the Assad regime to do exactly that and the Syrian foreign minister, who conveniently happened to be in Moscow, said Syria welcomes the proposal. To which, as Stephen Hayes reports in the Weekly Standard, administration officials responded positively, with White House press secretary Jay Carney taking the line that “the only reason why we are seeing this proposal is because of the U.S. threat of military action.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid cancelled the Wednesday vote on the resolution authorizing military force.
So the administration is apparently embracing the idea that Russia can persuade Syria to put its chemical weapons under international control. No need for military action, then, no need for congressional authorization. Everything will be all right. Except, as Kerry instantly indicated, it won’t. In his Bloomberg column, “15 Questions About the Increasingly Crazy Syria Debate,” Jeffrey Goldberg, a Middle East specialist who has generally been sympathetic to Obama administration policy, points to the problems. “How do you possibly verify that Assad has given up all of his chemical weapons?” he asks in Question 6. And Question 9: “How do you secure and transport all of these chemical-weapons components in the midst of a horrifically violent civil war?” Question 15 is a more fundamental inquiry: “How did the U.S. get so bollixed-up by the tin-pot dictator of a second-tier Middle East country?” He might have added another question: How long can Russia and Syria spin out negotiations on this issue?
It looks like the administration will accept this offer as a fig leaf to cover up its nakedness. Cynically, it will claim, as Carney already has, that this represents a great victory for administration policy. And they may get away with it in the court of public opinion. The best thing that can be said about such an outcome is that it’s better for the United States than either (a) pinprick military strikes that do little to change the behavior of the Assad regime or (b) a possible defeat for the administration in the Senate and, if not, a landslide repudiation of the president in the House of Representatives — which as Monday began in London seemed to be the only outcomes on offer. There is an old saying that God looks after drunkards, fools and the United States of America. Maybe He (or She) was busy on Monday.