Secretary of State John Kerry told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday that “mythology and politics” should not be allowed to “cloud reality” when he was asked about President Barack Obama’s supposed reluctance to use force. Yet he went on to do just that.
Kerry argued that the president had “made his decision” to intervene militarily in Syria after the regime of Bashar Assad there had allegedly deployed poison gas against civilians in the suburbs of Damascus in late August. Kerry, rather than the president, was the administration’s most vocal advocate of military action, describing the gas attack at the time as a “moral obscenity” that had crossed a “global red line” — referring to Obama’s own “red line” laid out more than a year earlier when he had warned that the use of chemical weapons could trigger American intervention.
But, said Kerry, the president “also made the decision to respect the requests of many members of Congress to come to them. And guess what?” When he did, it were members of Congress, in particular opposition Republicans, who balked at taking action.
Which is true but the president knew that. Asking Congress for authorization — which, under American law, was not something he had to do — was itself an attempt to stave off the use of force after Britain’s Parliament had rejected a similar request from Prime Minister David Cameron — who is not allowed to take military action without the fiat of his legislature.
Obama had no choice but to pursue a punitive expedition in Syria to salvage his own credibility. He had, after all, set a trap for himself by declaring the “red line.” When, according to his own intelligence services, Assad used poison gas and crossed that red line, the president could not but intervene.
There was no indication he wanted to. Indeed, all indications were he didn’t want to and when Russia offered a way out — a deal under which Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons — Obama took it, seemingly without much hesitation.
Kerry may have been right when he claimed, “That deal would never have come about if the president had not made his decision to use force.” But he was in no way determined to start a war in Syria either.