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The Gap Between Kerry’s Rhetoric and Obama’s Plans

In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this afternoon, Secretary of State John Kerry put forth a compelling and at times eloquent argument on behalf of U.S. action in Syria. But as was the case with Kerry’s statements last week that seemed to be the prelude to swift and decisive U.S. action in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, the secretary’s remarks to the committee seemed out of proportion to what the administration seemed to be promising if Congress acceded to the president’s request for an authorization of force.

If American credibility is on the line in Syria now that Assad has used chemical weapons, as Kerry rightly noted, what the administration is failing to adequately explain is how a military plan that would leave the dictator in place and with his armed forces largely intact is commensurate with the secretary’s ringing neoconservative rhetoric about the need for action. The problem is that having established a rationale for action about chemical weapons and repeating that President Obama’s policy was that “Assad must go,” how can the administration pretend that a shower of missiles will be enough to match Kerry’s “never again means never” stance. Any military response—even a purely symbolic one—would deny Assad the “impunity” that Kerry correctly fears would be the result of American inaction. But the administration’s attempt to justify a course of action that would avoid any American casualties and could not be interpreted as a full-fledged intervention and would not do much to destroy Assad’s main forces seems to be disconnected from the principles the secretary articulated.

Part of the explanation for the yawning gap between Kerry’s words and the sort of minimal U.S. action indicated by the various leaks coming from administration sources about the details of the proposed attack lies in the fact that the secretary of state seems to have little influence with the president. After all, Kerry’s speeches last week seemed to promise swift action on Syria only to be followed by the president’s public agonizing and ultimate decision to shift responsibility for the attack to Congress rather than taking action on his own.

The chain of events that led up to today’s hearings left Kerry open to the most acute embarrassment as it was revealed that he had little influence with the president and seemed to be out of the loop when it came to the White House’s decision-making process. That places Kerry’s major policy initiative—the revived Middle East peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians—in a troubling perspective that ought to worry those who have urged Israel to gamble its security on America’s credibility.

But the main question raised by Kerry’s soaring words is whether an action that is limited to “degrading” Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons and to “deter” him from future use, while avoiding any mention of regime change, can be squared with an argument on its behalf that seems to promise dire consequences should the butcher of Damascus survive Obama’s offensive.

The administration’s main priority is obvious: not do anything that could be interpreted as a new war or “tipping the scale” in the Syrian civil war against Assad. Given the widespread unpopularity of any such intervention, this reluctance is understandable. But despite the verbal gymnastics of Kerry, Secretary of Defense Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Dempsey, in which they have sought to differentiate their proposal from a military solution, logically there is no way to achieve the president’s goals by the kind of action he is proposing. After waiting so long to act and then to put on a spectacle of a debate in which the growing faction of isolationists in Congress will be able to further undermine any notion of national unity on this question, it’s hard to see why Assad should fear Kerry’s threats. After all, the dictator is far more assured of continued backing from Iran and Russia (which has prevented a United Nations seal of approval) than Obama is of an American consensus on behalf of his position.

As dangerous as a congressional vote to refuse an authorization of force against Syria would be, it’s hard not to avoid thinking about the consequences of a brief U.S. missile barrage that does nothing to alter the tide of war that has seemed to swing inexorably in favor of victory for Assad. This resolution may be the best Obama can do now that he has hesitated and turned to Congress for authorization rather than acting decisively, as he could have, on his own authority. But if a year from now we look back on Kerry’s words and ponder a Middle East in which Iran has secured the survival of its ally Assad, the gap between words and action will seem even greater.



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