Syria Debate Prompts a Newfound Respect for John Kerry. Yes, John Kerry.

I’m still glad John Kerry didn’t become President, but I’m starting to like him as Secretary of State.

I’ve been riveted by the Congressional hearings on Syria this week.  (One of the few advantages of being underemployed — I work part-time again, evenings, at a supermarket — is that I’m often free during business hours.)  Again and again I’ve been impressed by the eloquence and clarity of the man who once said “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”

Here’s my favorite passage, from testimony Sept. 4 at the House Foreign Affairs Committee (my emphasis throughout):

Iran, I guarantee you, is hoping that we look the other way.  And surely they will interpret America’s unwillingness to act against weapons of mass destruction [pause] as an unwillingness to act against weapons of mass destruction. … North Korea is hoping for ambivalence from the Congress. They’re all listening for our silence.  So the authorization that President Obama seeks is distinctly and clearly in our national interest.

When Nobel Peace Prize laureate Barack Obama launched his third war, in Libya, I was astonished and skeptical.  It took quite a while to sort out how I felt about it — I started out lukewarmly opposed, then eventually became optimistic about a positive outcome (long before Benghazi).

Syria is different.  From the moment I heard of Obama’s plan to attack Assad’s regime over the use of chemical weapons, it felt like the right thing to do — to the extent that I was initially dismayed when he seemed to be punting to Congress.  But after writing my first post on the topic, I was surprised by the vehemence of the opposition by some Republican lawmakers, and by many in the public.  Maybe I needed to think more about this.

To road-test my initial impression, I read a lot of commentary and watched the hearings.  I’m more convinced than ever about the need to punish Assad.  I think, and hope, that Obama will strike under his authority as commander-in-chief even if Congress refuses to approve.

Why?  Well, Kerry (and his speechwriters) can say it better than I can.  I never thought I would say this, but on this topic, I’m with John Kerry.

From the Senate testimony on Sept. 3:

As confidently as we know what happened in Damascus, my friends, on August 21st, we know that Assad would read our stepping away or our silence as an invitation to use those weapons with impunity. And in creating impunity, we would be creating opportunity — the opportunity for other dictators and/or terrorists to pursue their own weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. …

So this is a vote for accountability. Norms and laws that keep the civilized world civil mean nothing if they’re not enforced. …

This is not the time for armchair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter. Neither our country nor our conscience could afford the cost of silence. We have spoken up against unspeakable horror many times in the past; now, we must stand up and act. And we must protect our security, protect our values and lead the world with conviction that is clear about our responsibility. …

Doesn’t this make the United States the policeman of the world? No. It makes the United States a multilateral partner in an effort that the world, 184 nations strong, has accepted the responsibility for. And if the United States, which has the greatest capacity to do that, doesn’t help lead that effort, then shame on us. Then we’re not standing up to our multilateral and humanitarian and strategic interest.

Are you going to be comfortable if Assad, as a result of the United States not doing anything, then gasses his people yet again and they — and the world says, why didn’t the United States act? History is full of opportunity, of moments where someone didn’t stand up and act when it made a difference.

And from the House testimony, my second-favorite passage:

No country has liberated as much land or fought as many battles as the United States of America and turned around and given it back to the people who live there and who can own it and run it. We are the indispensable nation. This is because of who we are and what we have achieved. And we should be proud of it. And we have a great tradition to try to live up to in terms of trying to help people to see a peaceful road, not a road of jihadism.

Early in his presidency, Barack Obama demonstrated that either he didn’t believe in American exceptionalism, or he just didn’t know (at that time) what the term meant. It’s great to hear a senior member of his administration assert America’s duty to lead in a clear voice.

(Screen grab from State Department video of Kerry testifying in the House.)

4 thoughts on “Syria Debate Prompts a Newfound Respect for John Kerry. Yes, John Kerry.

  1. Hear,hear. The guy is strong and intelligent. ‘Nuff said. He runs a lousy campaign though, and encapsulating from Woodward and Maher, he chose to defend against lies by choosing the high road to electoral defeat. And he truly was/is an unrepentant dandy in a “Duck War” culture. I loved the “You lied” congressman trying to push his “question” on Benghazi from the dais, it was a Kafkaesque moment of an idiot trying to testify on an unrelated topic from the dais while the witness is running the hearing from the chair. In this spirit of detente’, I’ll offer from reading Woodward a new perspective of Cheney: not the evil uncle of the idiot prince, but rather, thank God that someone was the acting president. Bush was in reality more like the political officer on the Red October.

    • Actually, while Joe Wilson (the “you lie” guy) mentioned Benghazi in passing it was his South Carolina GOP colleague Jeff Duncan who used his entire time to “testify” on Benghazi rather than pose a question. I haven’t been able to find a complete transcript of the hearing, but the video is at http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/314825-1. Duncan starts at about the 2:19 mark (that’s 2 hours, 19 minutes), or you can use C-SPAN’s text timeline to search for Duncan. (You can find a spot in the video by SEARCHING the closed captioning text, but you can’t READ it, unless I’m missing something.)

      I’m not sure what Cheney has to do with any of this — I love ya, dano, but you sure do go off on tangents sometimes :) But I’ll bite — I don’t know which Woodward book you’re reading, but I just went back to my copy of Bush at War (the first of his four Bush books) and cherry-picked from the index to confirm my memory that the book very clearly and persuasively showed that while Bush valued Cheney’s advice, Bush, not Cheney, was in charge.

  2. If Kerry is right…
    Not saying he is but let’s assume for argument’s sake…

    If Kerry is right and action is moral, then inaction is immoral.
    We can excuse inaction on the part of those who cannot take action.
    Tuvalu, Barbados, Lichtenstein, go home, you’re excused.

    But this means that that virtually every nation that could make a military contribution to Kerry’s moral action, and chooses not to, is acting immorally.

    By their inaction, they are devaluing the “norms and laws that keep the civilized world civil”. They give tacit support to Assad and others like them to act with impunity.

    When Kerry shames them, I, too will have a new found respect for him. Not before. That’s my bar.

    • Thanks for stopping by to comment, Swami, but I think it’s more complicated than that. Kerry testified that while they welcome the support of other countries, they already can’t provide a military role for all the countries that have volunteered to participate.

      Coalition support is important politically, but militarily it seems mostly to cause headaches, with restrictions on how various countries’ troops can be used, etc.

      I’m more concerned about what our country will do than I am about what any other country will do. And the United Nations, of course, is hopeless.

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