John Kerry made a lot of news over the weekend when speaking on issues that will affect how the next presidential administration navigates a complex world. It is, thus, understandable then that his comments repudiating how the current administration has done business received short shrift.
Speaking at the Saban Forum in Washington on Sunday, Kerry revealed that he believed his freedom of action as America’s chief diplomat was limited and the world was made a less secure place as a result of Barack Obama’s 2013 comment that Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons would constitute the crossing of a “red line.” “I believe it is important for us to–and I know the cost – this has been a topic of conversation here–of the president’s decision when he decided not to enforce the red line through the bombing,” Kerry confessed.
Kerry went on to recall his humiliation in Europe as envoy to London with the mission of drumming up support for strikes on Assad’s regime to reinforce the prohibition on the battlefield use of chemical weapons. It was in London that the new secretary of state tried to convince skeptical British politicians that the action would have been an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.” That appeared to confirm the assertion of an unnamed U.S. official who told the Los Angeles Times that the administration was looking to execute a strikes that would be “just muscular enough not to get mocked.”
Inexplicably, the Commons declined to endorse this foolproof strategy. Congress followed suit, but only after Obama announced to the nation in a prime-time address that he had already taken up Moscow’s offer to mediate the conflict in Syria and remove Assad’s chemical-weapons stockpiles from the country.
In the end, American intervention in Syria was delayed by only a few months. Assad maintained and continued to use his chemical weapons. And the world watched an American president blink, resulting in revisionist powers invading, annexing, and creating territory from whole cloth, all dedicated to military power projection and the overturning of the American-backed post-War geopolitical order.
“So in effect, we got a better result out of not doing it, but it was the threat of doing it that brought about the result, and the lack of doing it perception-wise cost us significantly in the region,” Kerry conceded in a convoluted effort to absolve Obama’s failures in Syria. The meat of that comment is clear: “perception-wise,” America lost face by backing down, and that has harmed American credibility in the process.
Kerry’s repudiation of the president is the most stinging blow to his foreign-policy legacy out of the State Department, but it’s not the first. In June, 51 State Department diplomats signed a “dissent channel cable” urging the administration to execute strikes on Assad regime targets as promised. The letter contended that the administration’s policy toward Damascus had robbed Kerry of leverage over America’s allies or adversaries, and Assad was likely to outlast the Obama administration.
“Failure to stem Assad’s flagrant abuses will only bolster the ideological appeal of groups such as Daesh (ISIS), even as they endure tactical setbacks on the battlefield,” the letter read. According to the New York Times’ reporting, Secretary Kerry agreed with the dissenters within his ranks.
It strains memory to think of a State Department or a secretary that has chided the president for failing to be hawkish enough towards a Middle Eastern strongman, but here we are. The end of the Obama presidency is a period characterized by surprises, but this last is among the more remarkable and satisfying.