About That Newfound Respect for John Kerry: Never Mind

It seems like just yesterday when I was praising our Secretary of State for his role in the Syria controversy.  Let me check… actually, it was the day before yesterday.

Throughout many hours of congressional testimony last week, John Kerry stayed relentlessly on message and forcefully laid out the administration’s case for intervening in Syria. He was good.  Even though I’ve cast three presidential votes against him and his boss, I found myself oddly kinda proud of him.

Then, in a spasmodic eruption of staggering incompetence, Kerry stumbled his way onto a path that will likely lead to months of further indecision.  In response to a question yesterday about whether there was anything Assad could do to to avoid American military action, Kerry fled the confines of message discipline and ad libbed:

“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.”

Even as he said the words, he must have begun to realize the trap he was setting for himself, because he started walking the idea back in the very next sentence:

“But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”

Too late.  Russia jumped into the opening almost immediately, and Syria signed on today.  But Kerry had another arrow in his quiver of incompetence, and later in the day he let it fly.  Talking in London but aiming to reassure the audience back home, Kerry said any American airstrike would be “unbelievably small.”  That should clear up any remaining illusions Assad might have about facing danger from the United States.

Now that we’ve entered a process started by our own Secretary of State, the administration has no choice but to let the game play out.  There’ll be some sort of proposal from the Russians, who have repeatedly demonstrated that they have only our best interests at heart *cough* Snowden *cough*.  Assad will stretch the negotiations out, then eventually let some UN inspectors visit a site where the regime will hand over a few barrels and say, “there you go! That’s our chemical weapon stockpile.”  Writing at Commentary magazine, Max Boot describes the hurdles inspectors will face when they seek to broaden their search:

It is hard to know how such a deal could be implemented or enforced. It is one thing for inspectors to travel to Libya in 2003 to make sure that Gaddafi was giving up his entire WMD program. Libya then was a peaceful if despotic place. It is quite another thing to do so now in Syria where violence is commonplace–in fact UN inspectors looking for evidence of chemical-weapons use have already been shot at. How on earth could international inspectors possibly roam Syria in the middle of a civil war to confirm that Assad has no more chemical weapons left?

The task is daunting, indeed nearly impossible, in no small part because of our lack of knowledge about the whereabouts of his arsenal. The New York Times reports: “A senior American official who has been briefed extensively on the intelligence noted in recent days that Washington has firm knowledge of only 19 of the 42 suspected chemical weapons sites. Those numbers are constantly changing, because Mr. Assad has been moving the stores, largely for fear some of them could fall into the hands of rebels.”

As I write this Tuesday afternoon, I’m sure President Obama’s speechwriters are desperately trying to figure out what he can say in his televised address this evening to make sense out of this mess.  Good luck, Mr. President.  Meanwhile, Mr. Kerry is back testifying in Congress again.  Stay tuned.

(Screen grab from State Department video of Kerry in London yesterday)


On Reflection, I’m Surprisingly OK With Where Obama Is on Syria

When President Obama changed course abruptly on Saturday and announced that instead of attacking Assad’s regime in Syria, he would “seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress,” my immediate reaction was to roll my eyes.  Here we go again, trying to have it both ways.  It’s reminiscent of announcing a surge in Afghanistan, then simultaneously announcing a date certain for beginning to draw down the extra troops.

Conservative pundits whose national security opinions I generally respect jumped on Obama with both feet.  Commentary magazine editor John Podhoretz breached the magazine’s normal practice of not publishing new material on the Jewish Sabbath, with a blog post headlined “Obama’s Bizarre Syria Policy.”  The next day, Peter Wehner weighed in with a blander headline, but stated high in his post that “President Obama has handled the Syrian situation with staggering incompetence.” They both make a strong case, which you can read for yourselves.

Other pundits opined that the delay would give Assad time to hide his chemical weapons; that it made Obama look ridiculous to decide we should strike Syria, but delay it until Congress returns from vacation; and asked why does the commander-in-chief think he needs Congressional approval for limited military action in Syria, but did not feel the same way in Libya?

All reasonable arguments.  But then military leaders declared that the delay is not a significant tactical setback.  Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said:

Many of Assad’s assets we’d like to target are “fixed installations” he can’t move; the amount of intelligence and surveillance assets being devoted to the region should make it difficult for him to move matériel out of sight; and Assad’s current position, engulfed in a civil war, means he can’t exactly be moving military units, such as rockets or artillery, as he wishes.

Obama can be criticized for being indecisive, which is not what you want in a commander-in-chief.  But stubborn persistence also can be taken too far.  President George W. Bush — whose decision to overthrow Saddam I supported then and support to this day — has to answer for staying with a failed strategy in Iraq for years after it was clear a change was needed.

I think faster action on Syria might well have been preferable for the immediate tactical situation.  But if Obama succeeds in getting Congressional approval — a big if, but not impossible — it may be worth it in the long run to have an intervention supported by Democrats as well as Republicans.

Despite Obama’s wishful declaration that “this war, like all wars, must end,” the war against Islamic extremism will certainly outlast his presidency — and it may outlive all of us.  Future presidents will also have to wrestle with how to make war against Middle Eastern terrorists and despots, and I’m thankful that Obama is helping to build a bipartisan history of asserting America’s strength.

(Syrian flag from Wikipedia)