Thursday, September 12, 2013

Making Administration’s Case, Kerry Finds Six Words That Spell Trouble

Published: September 12, 2013

WASHINGTON — In the last three weeks, Secretary of State John Kerry has uttered tens of thousands of words about Syria — in Congressional hearings, on Sunday news programs, from the State Department and the British Foreign Office, and now in a Geneva hotel, where he and the Russians are hashing out a plan that could avert a military strike.

Making the case on Sept. 3 for military action before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Kerry acknowledged a worst case that would entail American "boots on the ground" in Syria. Six days later, at a news conference in London, he promised that any military strike against Syria ordered by President Obama would be "unbelievably small."

Critics on the left and right seized on Mr. Kerry's comments as proof of two contradictory theories about the president's threatened strike: that it would be a slippery slope to another American war in the Middle East; or that it was a token gesture that would do nothing to alter the deadly stalemate between the Syrian government and the rebels.

In Mr. Kerry's zeal to persuade different audiences, administration officials concede, he leaned too far in both directions. But these slips of the tongue laid bare a more basic contradiction in the Obama administration's Syria policy: it is a call for military action by a president who has desperately wanted to avoid being drawn into military action.

Given his boss's ambivalence, it was fitting that what many initially saw as Mr. Kerry's third major gaffe — suggesting in London that President Bashar al-Assad could avert a military strike by immediately turning over his chemical weapons — instead set in motion a diplomatic process that might end up being Mr. Obama's salvation.

With Russia taking up Mr. Kerry on his seemingly offhand suggestion, it now falls to the secretary of state to try to work out an international plan to take over and ultimately destroy Mr. Assad's chemical weapons. With such a central role, his public statements will continue to receive a level of scrutiny unusual even for a secretary of state.

Mr. Kerry's early missteps are hardly unusual, but they have gotten more attention than those of his two immediate predecessors, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Condoleezza Rice, former diplomats say, because of the intensity of the Syria crisis and Mr. Kerry's own intensity in responding to it.

"Every secretary I've worked with has said things that were impolitic," said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East diplomat who has worked for Republican and Democratic administrations. But Mr. Kerry, he said, has done so on a bigger stage than many of his predecessors.

"It's the combination of Kerry's supreme self-confidence, his desire to be out there, and his own forceful style, which has led him to an imprecision of language," said Mr. Miller, who is now a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Despite the missteps, Mr. Kerry has kept the backing of the White House, where officials said they appreciated that he had gone "all in" on advocating a difficult policy.

"It's a complicated balancing act to persuade people of the necessity to act, while also having the necessity to prove that it will be limited," said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser.

As a former senator who spent nearly three decades on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Kerry is used to speaking at length and with authority on world affairs. At the committee hearing last week, he was speaking to former colleagues with whom he had shared a dais for years.

So when the committee's current chairman, Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, asked him whether a Senate resolution authorizing force should contain an absolute prohibition on deploying American soldiers to Syria, Mr. Kerry responded candidly that he could think of scenarios that would require "boots on the ground."

"In the event Syria imploded, for instance, or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of Al Nusra or someone else," Mr. Kerry said. When that upset the ranking Republican, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, Mr. Kerry replied that he had been "thinking out loud about how to protect America's interests" and hastened to add, "There will not be American boots on the ground with respect to the civil war."

A week later, after a meeting with the British foreign secretary, William Hague, Mr. Kerry faced a different question. Why, a reporter asked him, had the Obama administration's arguments for a strike fallen flat with voters in the United States, Britain and France?

Mr. Kerry answered that people were understandably wary of another Iraq or Afghanistan. Compared with those wars, he said, the operation Mr. Obama had in mind was a "very limited, very targeted, very short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons." It would, he added, be an "unbelievably small, limited kind of effort."

Within minutes, Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who had been pushing the White House for a more robust response to Syria, posted a scathing Tweet: "Kerry says #Syria strike would be 'unbelievably small' — that is unbelievably unhelpful."

Fortunately for Mr. Kerry, that turned out to be a footnote. Minutes earlier, when he was asked whether Mr. Assad could do anything to head off a strike, he said: "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. But he isn't about to do it, and it can't be done, obviously."

Sensing another gaffe, Mr. Kerry's aides insisted he had been speaking rhetorically. But Mr. Kerry had been told by the national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, that Mr. Obama had discussed this issue with President Vladimir V. Putin in St. Petersburg days earlier. As soon as Mr. Kerry opened the door, the Russians walked through it.

The State Department's deputy spokeswoman, Marie E. Harf, said of the situation, "We're in Geneva today talking about a possible peaceful path to eliminate the regime's chemical weapons precisely because John Kerry issued a hypothetical challenge that smoked out our private conversations with the Russians."
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