Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to justify the Obama administration’s proposed strike on Syria. Hagel was typically unclear and confused, Dempsey provided a few strategic details, but to nearly everyone watching, Kerry contradicted himself, tripped over his own feet, and significantly undermined most of the arguments for a strike.
One of the primary motivations Kerry gave was that a strike on Syria’s chemical weapons would help keep them out the hands of terrorists. Then when asked whether Hezbollah already had chemical weapons, he said he would answer in a classified briefing scheduled the next day. As with an invocation of the Fifth Amendment, this doesn’t necessarily confirm that Hezbollah already has chemical weapons, but if they don’t it begs the question why he couldn’t have just said so. He mentioned several other sensitive details about the situation on the ground in Syria, including composition of the rebellion and our tactical assistance to them, so I don’t see how the fact that terrorists don’t have chemical weapons would be classified. That is…unless they do. And if they do, then the primary situation the strike is supposed to prevent is already the status quo.
Not only did the Hezbollah dodge raise questions about a fundamental pillar of the Syria strategy, but Kerry’s most jaw-dropping response of the day undermined even the administration’s belief in its effectiveness. When asked if there was any chance of American “boots on the ground” after airstrikes, Kerry said that while it isn’t anticipated that might be necessary if terrorists happen to get some of the chemical weapons later, or “if Syria imploded”. If? If?! So in his “thinking out loud”, which he spent the rest of the 3+ hour hearing walking back, he made it clear that airstrikes are not the endgame if they don’t ultimately work. Yet he dares question anyone calling this a “war”.
Kerry also took the low road by smearing his opponents as “armchair isolationists”, a tactic neither accurate nor fitting the Secretary of State. In the last few days, two former Bush administration officials, Donald Rumsfeld and John Bolton, principle architects and enacters of the most adventurist foreign policy since Vietnam, have come out as Syria skeptics. There is legitimate concern and honest doubt about both the necessity, wisdom, and strategy of bombing a nation in its third year of full on civil war. The administration doesn’t do itself any favors by attempting to insult, rather than placate its critics on such a sensitive issue.
After walking into a rhetorical trap laid by Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, Kerry managed to also undermined the Obama administration’s sense of urgency for conducting a strike. He even said that “there are advantages” to the delay caused by Obama’s decision to ask Congress for approval. Just one week ago, the military was literally preparing to strike, but now we have time to debate the issue in Congress? Kerry suggested a delay helps us get more allies on board to back a strike, but it also gives Assad time to prepare, which he is already doing. Kerry then said that if Assad used chemical weapons again before we had the chance to strike, that we would do so immediately, regardless of the status of the Congressional vote. But then, of course, what is the point? If the number of times Assad has used WMD now worth striking but only after debate, then is that number plus one such an unfathomable atrocity as requires an immediate unconstitutional response?
When asked what happens if Assad retaliates after a US strike, Kerry deployed naive wishcasting as his defense:
“Let me put it bluntly, if Assad is arrogant enough, and I would say foolish enough, to retaliate to the consequences of his own criminal activity, the United States and our allies have ample ways to make him regret that decision without going to war.”
Yes, we might be able to send more airstrikes, or engage sanctions, or have our allies retaliate, but that’s still escalation. Kerry’s only defense is that he doesn’t think Assad is “arrogant” and “foolish” enough to do so. But then, Assad is clearly “arrogant” and “foolish” enough to deploy chemical weapons against his own citizens, in violation of international treaties that he signed and advocated just a few years ago. The only thing standing in the way of serious escalation after a US strike is Bashar al-Assad’s sanity. What could go wrong?
The entire case for this action is a naivete wrapped around a miscalculation cloaked in hubris, as Kerry’s testimony clearly demonstrated. The official position of the United States government is that Assad should go. But we’re pursuing a limited airstrike directed at his weapons, with no intention of toppling him, so that we don’t have to send in troops. But if he gets toppled, or the strikes don’t work, and his weapons fall into the hands of terrorists, we want to keep ground troops on the table. You know, just in case.
This isn’t comparable to the drumroll prior to the Iraq war; strategically, it’s worse. At least then we were honest about what the real goal had to be and pursued it until it was complete. In that case we also happen to be wrong about the WMD, so they didn’t get used on our troops. Assad has already used them on his own citizens, “tens of times”, Kerry said, and I fear our men and women will be next.