A few questions on Kerry and Syria

Secretary of State John Kerry gestures during a statement on the situation in Egypt. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Secretary of State John Kerry (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Secretary of State John Kerry has had an eventful few days. After an inauspicious start as secretary of State (e.g., calling for a “special relationship” with Communist China, failing to convince Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to keep Salam Fayyad as prime minister and then obsessing on the useless “peace process“) he hit his stride in a big way on the Syria crisis. He delivered two impassioned performances urging action against Syria to respond to the use of chemical weapons to kill and injure thousands. He then went on five Sunday talk shows to defend the president’s about-face in deciding to go to Congress. He served his president loyally (whether that loyalty was earned or not) and his country by keeping the momentum going for action in Syria.

Secretary of State John Kerry gestures during a statement on the situation in Egypt. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Secretary of State John Kerry (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Why did the president choose Kerry to go out for him? In short, the president doesn’t want to do it himself either because he doesn’t much believe in the policy or because he’s embarrassed by the parallels to President George W. Bush’s decision to go to war with Iraq. Obama may also realize that, as on immigration reform, his presence loses him GOP support. Obama also needed Kerry to publicly absolve him of undercutting his secretary of State by changing his mind about authorization from Congress.

Moreover, there is no one else to do it. National Security Adviser Susan Rice has zero credibility with the American people and with Republicans specifically after Benghazi. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is viewed as dimwitted and likely could not have survived five Sunday show interviews. And Vice President Joe Biden is a loose cannon, likely to go off message or spill the beans about the internal chaos in the administration. The problem with having flunkies in key spots is that sometimes you need respected figures.

What does Kerry still have to do? He must convince Democrats and Republicans alike that there is a strategy here. Practically no one on Capitol Hill believes Assad would be deterred from using or acquiring weapons of mass desctruction simply by firing a shot “across the bow.” No sensible observer thinks this would make an impression on the mullahs in Tehran. What is required here is a some bona fide “shock and awe.”

To be blunt, the only deterrence that will matter and the only way to end the threat of more WMD attacks on Syrians is to destroy the chemical weapons caches or disable the military forces that will deliver them. And if our aim is to signal to Iran we won’t tolerate their acquiring a nuclear weapon, then anything short of driving Assad from office or significantly tipping the balance in favor of non-jihadists will be insufficient. That is the reality, which I suspect Kerry understands. He’s got to acknowledge this to Republican hawks who are demanding an effective policy, convince them the president understands this and then make sure he doesn’t lose all Democratic support. (Democrats want an even narrower resolution.)

What should Kerry advise the president to do to secure the vote in Congress? Kerry can’t simply repeat that Congress will definitely vote “yes.” It’s not true, and it risks losing a vote by virtue of arrogance (a common Obama administration malady).

He might offer two suggestions. The president would be wise to speak from the Oval Office to the country. It’s remarkable he hasn’t done so and that is the only way to convey to Americans, and thereby to Congress, what is at stake. The idea spun by his political hacks that this isn’t needed is bizarre. Alternatively, the president can ask for a joint session of Congress and speak directly to lawmakers. That would elevate his stature and would make those wanting to make partisan hay out of the situation look small. (Yes, the president has played politics and looks small, but let’s think constructively here.)

What does Kerry say about a possible ”no” vote? As little as possible. For one thing, he, of all people, should know Obama may change his current position that he’ll act regardless of Congress. And if Kerry emphasizes the president will act anyway he suggests to Congress and the country the vote is a sham. The best he can say would be something along the lines of, “On matters of grave national security it’s important for America to speak with one voice.” (This of course is why the president should do the talking and acting.)

What assurances should Kerry give Congress? Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a key moderate in the House, put out a statement Sunday night that included this:

“I will support a narrowly drawn resolution to authorize military force so long as it is limited in scope and purpose. This action must not put American troops in the line of
fire. Its purpose must be limited to deterring the future use of chemical weapons. Once a punitive strike has been made, no additional strikes should be conducted unless the Assad forces repeat the use of chemical weapons.”

This is absurd. Kerry should level with Democrats and Republicans alike. Any military action potentially puts our men and women at risk. And there are many contingencies that may require further action against Assad (e.g., attacks on U.S. troops, attacks on Israel). Moreover, as I’ve argued before, the only real way to prevent Assad from using WMDs is to destroy them and/or his regime. At some point the president may grudgingly come to understand this.

Van Hollen and the others can’t delude themselves and their constituents into thinking that we can address this threat with no risk and “strict limits.” That isn’t how military actions work.

Will Kerry and the administration pull out all the stops? As I noted earlier, one reasonable condition on the authorization vote would be to restore the sequester cuts. Kerry would be smart to make that deal. Not only will it earn him GOP support, but it also is important to be candid about what the war will cost.

What if Congress votes “no” and the president once again reverses himself and refuses to act? That is the nightmare scenario that responsible lawmakers and Kerry must work to avoid. If Congress votes no and the president can’t bring himself to act, Kerry then would have no choice but to resign. He’s made the case for action forcefully and he’s defended the decision to go to Congress. He couldn’t possibly continue to serve if the president repudiates Kerry’s words (again).

Admittedly, I haven’t found Kerry a very sympathetic figure before this incident, and I think he would have been a dreadful president (largely because he’d have pulled the plug on the surge and abandoned Iraq in disgrace). But he’s playing a vital role now — trying to broker a deal between the White House and Congress. That is far more important than the “peace process,” and we should hope he succeeds. Otherwise, as he said, America risks disgrace and empowers Assad and his allies in Tehran and Pyongyang.

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What is a Republican to do?