Kerry becomes first war casualty
By M K Bhadrakumar
Launching the military attack against a far away country in real slow motion is not an easy thing to do and the most taxing part of the diplomatic acrobatics by the United States as it embarks on the strikes against Syria is to be borne by Secretary of State John Kerry.
The strain is beginning to show. It seems certain now that Kerry will have to take the collateral damage of a US military strike against Syria ultimately.
Much as the strike may (or may not) weaken the Syrian armed forces and diminish its military capabilities, Kerry's capacity to be
an effective secretary of state for the reminder of President Barack Obama's term may have been seriously "degraded" already. The point is, over three full eventful years still remain in Obama's presidency and three years is a lot time in politics.
Whereas, Kerry's credibility as America's top diplomat is already under scanner. The unfortunate part is that Kerry probably doesn't deserve such a moment in his brilliant career in public life since he is not a novice to the world of international diplomacy. Kerry's tragedy is that he is being called upon to defend an indefensible brief.
Three major gaffes within the space of a week is a terrible record for a top diplomat to pile up under any circumstances. It all began last week during the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings when out of the blue Kerry interjected that the congressional resolution on the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against Syria should not expressly preclude the deployment of ground troops - "boots on the ground".
Kerry's logic was sound. After all, exigencies can arise in a war and the US military doctrine trusts the application of maximum force needed to vanquish the enemy. But the way he put it was awful and brought in to the hall the ghosts from Mesopotamia and the Hindu Kush.
As the senators caught on, Kerry probably realized - Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel who was seated beside him passed a slip of paper with just a "?" scribbled on it - that he had made a gaffe.
Then followed two "sub-gaffes" to cover up the original one. Kerry qualified that he'd rule out any deployment of troops in Syria on combat duties or to clinch the civil war as such. Now, why else would troop deployment is needed in a sovereign independent country, which has threatened to forcefully counter any form of aggression?
Kerry could see the sub-gaffe needed to be explained. So, he came up with a startling confession that he was only "thinking aloud" in the first instance when he originally hinted that the "boots-on-the-ground" option should not be expressly denied in the final AUMF resolution.
Kerry quickly added that after all, it is all a matter of wording and he could trust the venerable congressmen's talent for verbal jugglery to make it appear they are dead against deployment of American troops in Syria in such a way that gives Obama just the requisite wriggle room just in case his proposed "limited action" morph into a full-bodied war for regime change.
Kerry's second gaffe was about the al-Qaeda problem in Syria. Kerry expressed confidence that the "moderate" opposition is the main thing in Syria and the al-Qaeda groups are a sideshow. He judged that hardcore Islamist fighters account for only some 15% of the rebel army.
Of course, the senators who read newspapers and watch television weren't convinced, but they were polite. But not so Russian President Vladimir Putin, who openly said Kerry was "lying" since the formidable dimensions of the al-Qaeda problem in Syria have been a matter of serious discussion between Moscow and Washington, and Kerry was fully aware of it.
Kerry, of course, opted to give a wide berth to Putin. But all this became a picnic when on Monday he undercut Obama's war strategy with a stunning public statement in response to a smart query by a CBS reporter Margaret Brennan as to whether there could be any way an attack on Syria could be averted. This is what Kerry said:
Sure, if he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community, in the next week, turn it over. All of it, without delay and allow a full and total accounting for that, but he isn't about to do it, and it can't be done, obviously.
Within hours all hell broke loose. The high drama was neatly captured by the well-known Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole (author of Open City), who twittered:
Kerry: We won't attack ... if you do this impossible thing. Syria? Oh, We'll do it. Russia: They'll do it. UN: They'll do it. Kerry: Shit!
All sorts of conspiracy theories have since popped up - including that a secret Russian-American plan is afoot to help Obama to beat a decent retreat from war plan against Syria. But the honest truth is Kerry made yet another gaffe, and this time it took a life of its own.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (who plays ice hockey by the way) crashed into Kerry within a split second to grab the puck:
We [Russia] do not know if Syria agrees to this, but if placing the chemical weapons under international control helps avoid military strikes, then we will immediately get to work on this.
We are calling on the Syrian authorities to reach agreement, not only on putting chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on its subsequent destruction and then joining the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
We have already handed over this proposal to [Syrian foreign minister Walid] Muallem, who is in Moscow, and hope for a quick and positive answer.
Muallem, of course, didn't even bother to consult Damascus:
I have attentively listened to Mr Lavrov's statement. I declare that Syria, guided by its concern for the lives of its citizens and the security of the country, welcomes the Russian initiative.
Indeed, it is not that Russia and Syria were taking advantage of the time difference between Washington and London (from where Kerry spoke.) Even David Cameron got deceived. The British prime minister said the excellent Russian plan to place Syria's stockpiles under international control is "hugely welcome''.
A fire-fighting operation began no sooner than folks in Washington heard about Kerry's offer and the Russian plan and the Syrian response, et al. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf called her boss's words "hypothetical" and "rhetorical" and poured cold water on the Russian plan as "highly unlikely''. She clarified, "Secretary [Kerry] was not making a proposal."
White House spokesman Jay Carney was in some visible despair at the daily press briefing and promised to take a "hard look" at the proposal, flagging at the same time that all this happened in the first instance only because of the credible threat of US military force against the Syrian regime held out by Obama and, therefore, he, Carney, advised the US congressmen to go ahead and vote for the AUMF regardless.
The White House would know Kerry unwittingly took the shine off Obama's expected war speech on Tuesday and undercut the AUMF's prospects.
Nothing is worse than when one's predecessor in the job has to step in to cover for your inadequacy. Yet, this is what former secretary of state Hillary Clinton had to say following a meeting with Obama:
... if the [Syrian] regime immediately surrendered its stockpiles to international control as was suggested by Secretary Kerry and the Russians, that would be an important step. But this cannot be another excuse for delay or obstruction.
Clinton's ingenuous logic runs as follows: Syria can go ahead and surrender its stockpiles within a week if it wants, which is logistically impossible anyway, but the US will nonetheless go ahead with the war plan because that it what our Saudi partners want.
But she hit the nail on the head; namely, that the chemical weapons topic is only an alibi for the US military intervention and not the prime reason. Kerry should have known this simple truth.
Things have gone haywire in Washington. In the normal course, care be taken to ensure that in such trying times the UN secretary general is on board, but in this case Ban Ki-moon made the strongest possible plea possible against a US military strike against Syria when he spoke at the recent Group of 20 meeting in St Petersburg.
Following Lavrov's announcement yesterday, Ban said he was "considering urging the Security Council to demand the immediate transfer of Syria's chemical weapons and chemical precursor stocks to places inside Syria where they can be safely stored and destroyed" if it was proven that chemical weapons have been used.
It's check and checkmate for Obama. But he has a way with words, and his speech to the nation today, in which he is expected to present his best case for a US military attack against Syria, promises to be classic one.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).
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