The five big points from John Kerry’s speech on Syria

August 30, 2013

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks on Syria at the State Department in Washington, D.C. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State John Kerry gave a speech on Syria on Friday afternoon, his second this week. It reiterated most of his main points from earlier in the week, mainly that the U.S. is considering limited, off-shore military strikes against Syria to punish President Bashar al-Assad's government for allegedly using chemical weapons to kill hundreds of its own civilians.

You can read the full transcript here. Here are Kerry's five main points, spelled out:

1) The U.S. is still serious about strikes

There were some big setbacks this week to the U.S. plan  to organize a coalition of countries to launch strikes against Syria soon. The U.K. will not participate after all, and the United Nations is pushing for more time to conduct inspections. Regional Arab states, though many have been aggressively supporting Syrian rebels, have been hesitant about diving in for U.S.-led cruise missile strikes. Congress has been making noise that President Obama needs to seek their approval for strikes, which he probably wouldn't get.

Despite all that, Kerry maintained his tone, language and reasoning from earlier in the week, making it clear that the Obama administration hasn't changed its mind about wanting to launch limited strikes against Syria. So now it's just about execution, about "how" and "when" and "how much" rather than "if."

2) Bright neon lights: No boots on the ground

Kerry mentioned Iraq twice, both times to directly assure people that this isn't another Iraq. He explained: "Whatever decision he makes in Syria it will bear no resemblance to Afghanistan, Iraq or even Libya. It will not involve any boots on the ground. It will not be open-ended."

The Obama administration really wants you to know that when it says this will be a "limited" strike, it means limited. This makes sense; if the aim is not to shape the course of the war but just to punish Assad, then there's little incentive to make it a big attack, and it will be very easy for the administration to turn off the cruise missiles whenever it believes Assad has been sufficiently "punished."

3) The stated goal is to reinforce international norms against chemical weapons

His case is that the whole world is better off if the U.S., and hopefully some allies, punish Assad for using chemical weapons, thus reiterating the global norm that we don't use chemical weapons. (I explain why that actually does matter a great deal here.)

Secondary benefits are that it allows the U.S. to define on its own when it has sufficiently punished Assad, making it less likely to get sucked into a deeper engagement, and that it's a very internationally oriented case meant to appeal to other countries.

Tellingly, Kerry did not spend much time talking about how striking Syria would benefit U.S. national interests; it was much more about global interests. The primary audience here seemed to be people, and presumably national leaders, outside of the United States.

4) The administration also wants to save face

More than in his last speech, Kerry talked about the importance of American credibility. The concept here is that the U.S. has to do what it says it will do or other countries will stop taking it seriously. Scholars tend to consider this idea as largely bunk; the international system is a bit more sophisticated than that.

The primary risk that the administration is considering here is probably not that the United States will lose credibility in the international arena, but maybe more that the administration will lose face within the United States. The White House just suffered a big embarrassment for its handling of Egypt. It is probably not eager to take more egg on its face by pushing for, and then backing off of, strikes against Syria.

5) The U.S. would really like some allies now, please

Much will be made of Kerry's statement that France is the United States' "oldest ally." And the way Kerry ticked off the U.S.' coalition of the might-be-willing was a little awkward; when you lead with a statement of support from the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, you've clearly got some ally-cajoling to do.

Beyond the mock-ability of this section of Kerry's statement, it does drive home the extent to which the administration really, really wants to bring in more allies. Much of his speech makes sense in this context, as an international appeal for other states to join the U.S. against Syria.

You can read this as an effort to save face after the U.K. dropped out, by giving the increasingly lonely U.S. mission a greater sense of multilateralism. Or you can read it as an earnest effort to work through the international community, as Obama has long emphasized in foreign military action. It's probably a combination of both, but the point is that Kerry's statements suggested that, for the next few days, gathering allies will be a big part of its efforts.

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Max Fisher · August 30, 2013