Secretary of State John Kerry served in the Senate for years, and is by all signs a capable diplomat who understands the value of precise language.
That’s what made his appearance Tuesday afternoon at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee about retaliatory air strikes against Syria all the more baffling.
While making the case that Syria crossed a “red line” in using chemical weapons, Kerry seemed to waffle in a way that was reminiscent of his losing the 2004 presidential campaign. The Secretary of State pledged that President Obama did not want boots on the ground, while suggesting that they might be necessary to keep one of the rebel groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from getting access to, say, sarin nerve gas.
“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 — all of us, the British, the French, and others… I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to the president of the United States to secure our country,” Kerry said.
The White House has two goals in Syria, Kerry elaborated. The first is to deter the use of chemical weapons, with the understanding that retrieving those weapons from Syria would be an implied part of the mission.
The second goal is to remove Assad. Kerry said that any actions to accomplish this goal – including boots on the ground – would be contained in future operations.
“[The president] is not asking the Congress for authorization to become whole hog involved in the Syrian civil war,” Kerry said. “There is a second track …that Assad must go. The president is pursuing that tract.”
This complicates the Obama administration’s request that Congress approve limited strikes in Syria. Lawmakers want to prevent the United States from getting entangled in another war by forbidding the use of combat troops in their resolution supporting the strikes, while Kerry asked for a more open-ended mandate.
Many lawmakers are concerned that any intervention in Syria will mimic the last two military adventures the United States has undertaken with questionable results. Iraq and Afghanistan were supposed to be quick, small wars. They ended up being just the opposite, stirring up a fair amount of skepticism among voters and denizens of Capitol Hill.
Kerry’s answers were too ambiguous for Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN). Corker pushed Kerry to say that the Assad regime would be the target of any action, as opposed to waging some kind of proxy battle against other Middle Eastern nations in Syria.
Kerry clarified his earlier remarks, saying that U.S. troops would not be fighting in support of rebels.
“All I did was raise a hypothetical question about some possibility,” Kerry said. “There will not be American boots on the ground with respect to the civil war.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) asked if the administration had considered that a campaign to degrade Assad might only strengthen him, letting him declare to the world that he had withstood a series of U.S. strikes.
“For certain, we have taken that into account,” Kerry responded, emphasizing that the goal would only be to degrade Assad and deter him from using chemical weapons again.
When later asked what Obama would do if Congress opposed the resolution, Kerry answered candidly: He didn’t know.