John Kerry testifyies on Capitol Hill, Sept. 4, 2013, before a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Syria. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

The incredibly dumb obsession with John Kerry's "gaffes"

The secretary of state is not great at this drumbeat for war thing. So what?


Brian Beutler
September 9, 2013 10:20PM (UTC)

Events in Syria are unfolding quickly at the moment, so bracket this piece in the event that the Assad regime's offer to place its chemical weapons under international control turns out to be a feint.

The story that's dominating the domestic debate over attacking Syria is much more trivial. We've officially entered the "you didn't build that!" phase of the Obama administration's campaign to build support for a bombing campaign.

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Speaking at a joint press conference in London with his British counterpart, Secretary of State John Kerry described the proposed U.S. action as an "unbelievably small, limited kind of effort."

First, everyone LOL at Kerry for not being very good at this war drumbeat thing. Dude has no rhythm whatsoever -- and definitely no instinct for painting the U.S. as a masculine country with large, powerful genitals.

Now that you've gotten it out of your system, you should completely forget he ever said it -- whether you support the administration's plans or not.

Some of the criticisms directed at Kerry imply that these kinds of comments are counterproductive -- can you really discourage future chemical weapons attack with an "unbelievably small" response? "One way not to scare your enemy is to promise him an 'unbelievably small' war," noted the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg.

This line of criticism mistakes clumsy coalition building for a failed attempt at diplomatic intimidation. It also doesn't give the Syrian government nearly enough credit. Does anyone really think the Assad regime is making preparations for a potential U.S. attack based on internally directed acts of suasion?

Supporters of a larger intervention in Syria are mocking Kerry because … they want a larger intervention in Syria! But that reflects a policy disagreement between themselves and the administration, not a genuine concern that talking small to assure war weary allies will embolden Bashar Assad. It's completely possible to imagine a course of action in Syria that's both "unbelievably small" relative to, say, the Iraq War, and also capable of damaging Assad's capacity to use chemical weapons.

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But that gets at the reason this kind of sales pitch is unlikely to persuade domestic and international opponents of attacking Syria. Nobody really thinks the administration wants to undertake an attack that's so "unbelievably small" that it won't have any consequences in Syria and the region -- what would the point of that be? And yet it's hard to imagine an attack that's just big enough to accomplish the Obama administration's stated objectives but just small enough not to invite the possibility of escalation.

That's a big problem for the administration -- one of the reasons its efforts to increase public support for Obama's plan have been unsuccessful. But it has nothing to do with the fact that John Kerry is predisposed to saying things inartfully.


Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at bbeutler@salon.com and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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