Kerry’s hypotheticals

John Kerry - Caricature

John Kerry – Caricature (credit: DonkeyHotey)

In the past week US Secretary of State John Kerry has offered two apparently off-the-cuff “hypotheticals,” but I wonder….

As I noted here a week ago in “Syriously? Another War?”: During the Senate foreign affairs committee hearing, NJ Sen. Robert Menendez asked Kerry whether the authority-to-use-military-force resolution could be narrowed to exclude authority to “put US boots on the ground.” Kerry painted a scarey scenario in which troops might need to be called in to protect the Syrian chemical arsenal from falling into extremist hands if the Assad regime fell:

But in the event Syria imploded, for instance, or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of al-Nusra or someone else and it was clearly in the interest of our allies and all of us, the British, the French and others, to prevent those weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the worst elements, I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country.

Later, Kerry “clarified”:

All I did was raise a hypothetical question about some possibility — and I’m thinking out loud — about how to protect America’s interests. But if you want to know whether there’s any — you know, the answer is, whatever prohibition clarifies it to Congress and the American people, there will not be American boots on the ground with respect to the civil war.

I thought Kerry had slipped up; now, I’m not so sure. He clearly qualified that there would not be US boots on the ground with respect to the civil war.” That left the possibility that US personnel could be called on to protect and neutralize Syria’s chemical weapons if necessary. Kerry’s seeming equivocation I think fueled some of the opposition that has slowed the resolution’s progress through Congress. It also focused on chemical weapons.
Monday, responding to a question from a reporter in London about avoiding war, Kerry said that Assad could “turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.” He quickly qualified that Assad “isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done.” The State Dept. followed up immediately with further “clarification” that Kerry’s statement was “rhetorical” and “hypothetical.”

A day later, Kerry’s supposedly off-hand slip had blossomed into some serious diplomatic maneuvering to craft an agreement that may place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control and avoid the direct US attack being threatened a few days ago. Almost immediately, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov approved of Kerry’s remarks: “We will immediately start working with Damascus.”

It now turns out that the “Russian gambit,” as some are calling it, was under discussion since Obama and Putin talked at the G20 meetings last week. On Tuesday (today), Kerry was in a Google+ hangout about Syria with Lara Setrakian of Syria Deeply and New York Times columnist Nick Kristof. Setrakian asked Kerry how this new direction in Syria policy came about. Kerry:

We’ve had conversations about chemical weapons for some period of time… more specifically, we discussed this last week, Sergey Lavrov and I discussed it, President Putin discussed it with President Obama in St. Petersburg, and President Obama instructed him that “he would take it up on the foreign minister level….I obviously mentioned it in public in London on Monday and we are where we are today.”

John Kerry may be a better statesman than he first appears. I’ll bet he’s a pretty fair fly-fisherman, too.

One other thought: I know it might complicate matters and throw a monkey-wrench into the immediacy of the situation, but while we’re at it, how about putting all chemical weapons under international control and destroying them. Then, next week we can work on nukes!

Just sayin’.