John Kerry is dangerously bad at selling Syria strikes

September 9, 2013

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Secretary of State John Kerry has been doing his darnedest to sell Congress on President Obama's plan to launch limited strikes against Syria. But, while Obama and the rest of the administration have mostly stayed on message that the goal would be limited to deterring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons in the future, Kerry has tended to be a bit more extemporaneous. He's strayed off message a number of times, exaggerated the administration's case, made some unconvincing historical analogies and even entertained strange hypotheticals.

Kerry's missteps are bad politics for the Obama administration, making it tougher to sell their Syria strikes plan to an already skeptical Congress and American public. But they also have real implications for Syria itself and for the U.S. effort to organize international action to end the war.

My colleague Chris Cillizza has catalogued some of Kerry's off-message comments. Two telling moments where his insistence that this was as "Munich moment" – an implicit comparison to the early slide into World War II – and his later argument that any U.S. action would be "unbelievably small."

Those contradictory arguments aren't just bad for selling the case for strikes because they muddle the message and confuse people. They also send mixed messages in ways that can lead to mission creep. If Congress approves strikes after being told by the secretary of state that it could help to strengthen rebels and weaken Assad, then they may naturally push the White House to widen strikes to follow through on Kerry's promises – even if Obama himself has always said this isn't the goal. Conversely, Kerry could also box in the United States, making it tougher for the U.S. to launch anything larger than "unbelievably small" strikes if it decides that's necessary, without making it look like the administration had misled America into war.

But Kerry's rhetorical missteps matter for more than just the United States. He responded to a reporter's question about how Assad could ward off U.S. strikes by floating scenario. "Sure, he could turn over every bit of his weapons to the international community within the next week, without delay," he said. The problem with this is that Kerry doesn't get to make offhand analytical comments; he's the U.S. secretary of state, and whether or not he meant this as an offer to Assad, that's how it was taken.

Russian and Syrian officials quickly jumped on Kerry's comments, endorsing the hypothetical as an official offer and suggesting Syria might give up its chemical weapons. There's a strong case to be made that this would be a great outcome, but it could also simply be a stalling tactic that will make it very tough for the United States to act and could well end with Syria surrendering exactly zero chemical weapons. The Obama administration is now obligated to follow up on Russia's proposal for Syria to turn over its chemical weapons, giving Moscow a bit more control over the international leadership on Syria and leaving the U.S. with a bit less.

Kerry's predecessor, Hillary Clinton, came a bit to his rescue, saying in comments Monday afternoon that Russia's proposal would be an "important step" but that "this cannot be another excuse for delay or obstruction. And Russia has to support the international community's efforts sincerely or be held to account." She then reiterated Obama's talking points on the need to deter the use of chemical weapons and his call for a political solution to Syria, carefully parsing short-term U.S. goals from long-term and careful not to over-promise.

It's not clear why Kerry has strayed off-message so many times on Syria. Perhaps he's just spoken a bit too freely, although one also wonders if he simply doesn't buy the administration's official line.

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Max Fisher | September 9, 2013