The claim that Hillary Clinton ‘laid the groundwork’ for the Syrian chemical weapons deal


Animal carcasses lie on the ground, killed by what residents said was a chemical weapon attack, in Khan al-Assal area near the northern city of Aleppo, March 23, 2013. (Reuters/George Ourfalian)

“We’ve got the chemical weapons. We’re getting the chemical weapons out of Syria. She [Hillary Rodham Clinton] laid the groundwork for that.”

– Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” touting the achievements of former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, June 1, 2014

Sen. McCaskill made this statement in response to tough comments from moderator Chris Wallace asking whether Hillary Clinton really had a record on which to run for president.

“Let’s look at some of Clinton’s other initiatives, other policies during those four years as secretary of state,” Wallace said. “She pushed the reset bottom in relations with Russia, which has clearly now failed. She defended Syria’s President Assad as a possible reformer at the start of that country’s civil war. She failed to stop the nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea. And she decided not to designate the Nigerian group Boko Haram as a terrorist organization.”

Frankly, Wallace gets a few things wrong here. We’ve already debunked the Boko Haram allegation. It’s a bit much to say she couldn’t stop the North Korea nuclear program; this is an endless problem. She didn’t quite call Assad a reformer; she claimed that “many members of both parties” who had gone to Syria had done so, but as The Fact Checker pointed out at the time, that was simply not credible.

Nevertheless, McCaskill’s comeback included the very interesting claim that Clinton “laid the groundwork” for the deal to remove chemical weapons from Syria. The 2013 deal is certainly an achievement — the State Department claims 92 percent of the weapons have been removed, but others warn that getting the rest out will remain a challenge and that the deal may actually be “crumbling.”

But what did Clinton have to do with this? She left at the end of Obama’s first term.

The Facts

In response, McCaskill spokesman John LaBombard provided a long list of diplomatic meetings and statements in which Clinton tried — and failed — to end the civil war in Syria.

There’s Clinton meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in June 2012, working on a peace plan that “stalled.” There’s Clinton in December 2012 asserting, “We have been trying hard to work with Russia to stop the bloodshed in Syria.”

It’s a record of heartbreak and little success. How did this lead to the chemical weapons deal? “Senator McCaskill believes that as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton was actively engaged in ensuring a transition towards peace in Syria and the current efforts to remove chemical weapons benefited from her hard work,” LaBombard said.

In other words, a lot of weight is being placed on the word “groundwork.” She was there in the first term, so anything good that happened in the second term was the result of her laying the “groundwork.” While that may be the case for some portfolios — such as the negotiations concerning Iran’s nuclear program, which McCaskill also cited — it does not appear to be credible for the chemical weapons deal.

Here’s how that deal came down.

The idea of containing Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons was first discussed between Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Obama at the Group of 20 summit in Mexico in June 2012, administration officials said. Clinton also attended that summit, but there is no indication that she worked the issue afterward.

Indeed, it was not until August of that year that Obama, in an unscripted moment, told reporters that “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” He warned that such an attack by Syria would lead to “enormous consequences.”

That statement became a serious diplomatic problem in April 2013 when the administration sent a letter to Congress saying that it had evidence that Syria had used chemical weapons, in particular sarin. (The president’s various versions of this “red line” were detailed by The Fact Checker.)

It was in the context of that April announcement that, during a meeting in Moscow the next month, the new secretary of state, John F. Kerry, and Lavrov first had a substantive discussion on containing Syria’s chemical weapons, officials say.

But even the concept was just that — a concept — until Obama started to threaten military strikes against Syria for the alleged use of chemical weapons and Kerry on Sept. 9, 2013 offhandedly threw out the idea that the strikes could be canceled if Syria gave up all of its chemical weapons.

A reporter asked: “Is there anything at this point that his government could do or offer that would stop an attack?”

Sure,” Kerry replied. “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.”

To Kerry’s utter surprise, Lavrov immediately took him up on the offer, hoping to avert an attack on Russia’s most important Middle East client state. But making lemonade out of lemons, the Obama administration decided to see if the Russians were serious. Within days, the two sides met in Geneva to hash out the details — and Kerry kept the talks going even when the Russians were ready to give up.

The deal was struck. The airstrikes, which had faced growing opposition in Congress, were canceled.

The extensive negotiations led by Kerry are lovingly documented in a State Department photo gallery. There are no pictures of Clinton.

The Pinocchio Test

By all accounts, the chemical weapons deal is Kerry’s baby. He may have stumbled into it, but diplomats seize such moments when they can, especially when their boss is under political pressure.

Clinton, by contrast, was not part of the negotiations or even the preliminary discussions; her only tangential connection is that she was at the G-20 meeting in June 2012 when Obama and Putin first discussed Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. In terms of laying the groundwork, her failure as secretary to end the conflict during Obama’s first term certainly created the conditions for the threatened airstrikes and the subsequent deal in the second term — but we doubt that’s what McCaskill meant.

Three Pinocchios

 


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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.
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Glenn Kessler · June 4