Op-ed: Unbelievably small and incredibly unpersuasive

Now that John Kerry is the secretary of state, his gaffes can launch major diplomatic initiatives.

A reporter in London asked what Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could do to avoid war. Kerry responded: “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 the full and total accounting. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done.”

The State Department quickly noted that the secretary was merely making a rhetorical point. But the Russians immediately embraced the Kerry flourish as a serious proposal. It was “welcomed” by Damascus and spoken of warmly by the U.N. secretary-general and the British and French governments.

In her highly anticipated remarks on the Syria crisis, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said action on the Kerry gaffe-turned-plan would be an “important step.” In his briefing, White House press secretary Jay Carney triumphantly noted that there wouldn’t have been so much diplomatic progress absent the “credible threat” of force.

Never mind that Kerry punctuated the launch of his unintended Syria peace plan with the words “it can’t be done.” In a storm, any port will do, and during a catastrophic meltdown of an administration’s case for war, so will any diplomatic fig leaf.

Not all of Kerry’s gaffes in London rose to the level of game-changing diplomacy. He said the strike on Syria would be “unbelievably small.” Surely, Kerry was making another one of his rhetorical points, that compared with, say, Dresden or “Shock and Awe,” the strike on Syria would be a much more circumscribed affair. But “unbelievably small” is not a rallying cry.

An anonymous administration official resorted to an analogy to children’s cereal. As USA Today paraphrased his explanation: “If Assad is eating Cheerios, we’re going to take away his spoon and give him a fork. Will that degrade his ability to eat Cheerios? Yes. Will it deter him? Maybe. But he’ll still be able to eat Cheerios.”

A military strike to change Assad’s options in breakfast flatware is even less stirring than Kerry’s assurance of unbelievable smallness. At the beginning of what is supposed to be the administration’s full-court press for a strike, it has done more to open itself to mockery than to persuade, more to set back its case than to advance it.

Part of the problem, besides simple incompetence, is that the administration has dual, and conflicting, audiences. The president’s political base wants a strike to be as symbolic as possible, while the rapidly diminishing number of Republican supporters want it to be as robust as possible. Please one side and you alienate the other.

And then there’s the mismatch between rhetoric and means. The natural language of American warfare is highly moralistic and a little apocalyptic, which is why our enemies are always compared to Adolf Hitler. John Kerry said that Assad has joined Hitler in using poison gas. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid invoked the Holocaust in his case for bombing. But if we are really confronted with such evil, why do we seek merely to “degrade” Assad’s capability before watching him continue his slaughter by means we find less outrageous?

The case for a strike comes down to a matter of national credibility that is more likely to move Henry Kissinger than the public. Voters are not in the mood for any more Middle Eastern entanglements, so the administration is performing before a hostile crowd. It’s always easier to look at the top of your communications game when you are not up against a howling head wind of public opposition.

If he’s not already, the president may soon wonder why, with the Syria vote, he built a pyre, threw his presidency on it and asked Congress to decide whether to light a match. Considering the gravity of the possible defeat before him, any escape hatch can look attractive, even one provided by his secretary of state’s careless words.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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