If there was one thing the White House should have learned from its disastrous initial response to the civil war raging in Syria it’s that words are important. One ad-libbed “red line” comment and suddenly you’ve thrust the nation into a foreign policy predicament – if we don’t back you up the U.S. looks weak, but if we follow you to war, countless blood and treasure will be expended to no geopolitical gain.
New Secretary of State John Kerry has been even more loose-lipped. First, he refused to rule out putting “boots on the ground,” and then spent the rest of the Congressional hearing attempting to backtrack. He later clarified that “there will not be American boots on the ground with respect to the civil war,” adding that his previous comments were just him “thinking out loud.”
Then, once the threat of a substantial military action was sufficiently diffused, he likened this to a “Munich moment” – a reference to Britain’s decision to appease rather than go to war with Hitler.
Kerry then flip-flopped again. At a news conference in London yesterday he promised that any military action in Syria would be “unbelievably small.” The goal of course was to convince skittish Americans and congressmen that the Obama Administration wasn’t carelessly committing us to another Iraqi conflict. The trouble is that it also may have successfully convinced Assad loyalists that the United States was so wedded to only sending a message that they needn’t heed it.
As Tom Vanden Brook colorfully wrote in the USA Today, “If Assad is eating Cheerios, we’re going to take away his spoon and give him a fork. Will that degrade his ability to eat Cheerios? Yes. Will it deter him? Maybe. But he’s still be able to eat Cheerios.”
And then came the worst of all gaffes. While speaking in London on Monday morning, Secretary Kerry casually tossed out a proposal to avert airstrikes against Syria, one that would give Assad an “out” to avoid an American attack.
When asked by a reporters if there was something Assad could do to avoid U.S. strikes, Kerry responded “sure.”
“Sure, he could turn over every bit of his weapons to the international community within the next week, without delay,” Kerry said, throwing up his hands in a flippant manner. Kerry even went on to say, “but he isn’t about to do it,” adding that “it can’t be done, obviously.”
Apparently it wasn’t as obvious as Kerry may have thought. The White House knew it had a problem on its hands. When asked if Kerry’s remarks were representative of the Obama Administration’s plan in Syria, Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken said, “No, no, no. We literally just heard about this as you did some hours ago.”
The White House then went into spin-mode and spent several hours trying to downplay the comment, labeling it a “hypothetical” and “rhetorical.” One anonymous official even told CNN it was a “major goof,” saying that Kerry “clearly went off script.”
But it was too late. Sensing that they’ve been tossed a softball, Russia jumped on the gaffe as legitimate policy. Russian Foreign Minister urged Syria to comply with Kerry’s request. “We are calling on the Syrian leadership not just to agree to put chemical-weapons stores under international control, but also to their subsequent destruction,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
Syria also saw an opportunity and quickly accepted. The Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad said it “welcomes the Russian initiative,” adding that they also “welcome the wisdom of the Russian leadership, which is trying to prevent American aggressions against our people.”
This, as the New Republic’s Julia Ioffe writes, is exactly how not to do foreign policy.
“This, apparently, is how diplomacy happens these days: Someone makes an off-hand remark at a press conference and triggers an international chain reaction that turns an already chaotic and complex situation completely on its head, and gives everyone a sense that, perhaps, this is the light at the end of the indecision tunnel.
. . . There are two clear winners in this slow-motion train wreck, and they are not Obama or Kerry. They are Assad and Putin. Both wanted, for their own reasons, to avert a military strike, and a military strike was averted. Putin insisted on a diplomatic solution while doing everything to make a diplomatic solution impossible, and now he gets his phony, unenforceable diplomatic solution. Assad wanted to go on killing his opposition, and he will continue to do so.”
The end result of this string of off-hand remarks has been the utter destruction of America’s geopolitical position in the Middle East. America not only looks weak, it looks like it has surrendered its role to Russia, a country you may remember has consistently thwarted our attempts to rein in Iran. In a world where words matter let these two sink in: “unmitigated” and “disaster.”