High rhetoric as Kerry, Hagel pitch Syria strike to Congress

"It's about humanity's red line," says Kerry, in a contentless narrative of good versus evil

Published September 3, 2013 8:35PM (EDT)

With echoes of John Kerry's statement of high moral valance on Syria last week, the secretary of state alongside Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel brought his rhetoric-infused war cry to Congress.

While House leadership from both sides of the aisle came out Tuesday in support of a military incursion against Bashar al-Assad's regime, the Obama administration attempted the same afternoon to convince a Senate hearing of the need for action. Claims to the necessity of a strike against Syria were again couched in a selective moralism about the use of chemical weapons, with offhand references to the threat of U.S. enemies including North Korea, Iran and Hezbollah gaining a regional advantage, or appropriating chemical weapons, in a Middle Eastern power vacuum.

Both Hagel and Kerry argued that the "morality" and "credibility" of the U.S. as a world leader hangs in the balance over striking in response to Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against his people. The administration has chosen its course: a guilt trip into another war, buoyed by the added threat of "baddies" taking advantage of U.S. inaction. The Senate was presented a neoliberal tale of good versus evil ("All of us know that the extremes of both sides are there, waiting in the wings," warned Kerry), with little content in terms of precise objectives or shape of the planned Syria attacks, nor a defense in terms of international law. Indeed, on the same day as Hagel and Kerry made their case to Congress, U.N. chief Ban Ki-Moon warned that a U.S. attack could unleash further turmoil in the beleaguered region. Little matter: If the high, empty rhetoric of the administration is any indication, there will be war (despite Kerry's comment to the Senate hearing that "President Obama is not asking Americans to go to war").

Referencing what was previously framed as Obama's "red line" for military intervention (namely, the use of chemical weapons by Assad, reports of which have abounded for some time before the U.S. called for urgent action), Kerry proclaimed, "This debate is about the world's red line. It's about humanity's red line. It's a red line that anyone with a conscience would want to draw."

Yet while the administration's representatives stressed the moral imperative to respond to chemical weapons, they spoke too of regional logistics. Hagel, in particular (though largely just echoing Kerry), emphasized the threat of an emboldened Hezbollah in the region. The two arguments for a military strike, although not at strict odds with each other, make for an unconvincing juxtaposition: Is this about taking a moral stand on the world stage against chemical weapons? Or is this about sending a message to Hezbollah and other Islamist militant groups gaining ground in the vacuum of Syria's civil war? Is this about disabling Assad's capacity to use chemical weapons with limited strikes? Or, as Hagel implied, will further assistance be given to the despotic leader's opposition?

And amid the promises of a short, sharp operation, the administration told Senate Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., that it would be "preferable not" to put in place a prohibition of "boots on the ground." Kerry said:

Not because there's any desire whatsoever to have boots on the ground ... 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 ... I don't want to take off the table an option.

As the antiwar chorus has warned, and as Kerry here admitted, this war could indeed spiral and extend.

In his poem "September 1, 1939," W.H. Auden decried the "low dishonest decade" passed. As this September begins, precisely 74 years later, with another low and dishonest decade gone, the case for another U.S. military incursion in the Middle East seems all-too familiar: drenched in unconvincing moralizing about a global conscience, which the United States continues to call upon at will.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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