Obama Officials Make Case for Syria Strikes Before Senate

American defense secretary Chuck Hagel testifies before the House Committee on Armed Services in Washington DC, April 11
American defense secretary Chuck Hagel testifies before the House Committee on Armed Services in Washington DC, April 11 (DoD/Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

America’s top national-security officials appeared before a Senate committee on Tuesday to argue for military action against Syria after the regime of President Bashar Assad there was accused two weeks ago of gassing hundreds of civilians in a suburb of the capital Damascus.

Secretary of State John Kerry advocated intervention in passionate terms, saying “humanity’s red line” had been crossed when Assad used poison gas, referring to President Barack Obama’s warning last year that the use of chemical weapons on the regime’s part would trigger an international response.

Facing questions from Tennessee Republican Bob Corker about the United States’ interests in Syria, Kerry told the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee that the proliferation of chemical weapons use in the Middle East would inevitably harm America and its allies. “We cannot overlook the impact of chemical weapons and the danger that they pose to a particularly volatile area of the world in which we’ve been deeply invested for years,” he said.

Defense secretary Chuck Hagel later raised the possibility of the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah, which fights on the side of Assad’s army, acquiring chemical weapons and using them against Israel.

Kerry downplayed the risk of Russian retaliation in response to questions from Idaho Republican Jim Risch, saying Russia had no “ideological” but only a “geopolitical” interest in sustaining Assad’s regime.

Russia wants Assad to stay in power not only because it maintains a naval base in the Mediterranean port city of Tartus and sells weapons to his regime, however. It fears that a successful Sunni uprising in Syria will embolden Islamist separatists in its own Caucasus region while President Vladimir Putin’s government is altogether opposed to Western nations meddling in the internal affairs of other countries.

The objective of a military operation, Kerry suggested, is to “help the opposition” and “avoid the creation of a safe haven in Syria, or a base of operations for extremists, to use these weapons against our friends.” He did not explain how the air- or missile strikes that President Obama is reportedly considering — which Kerry insisted would not amount to going to war — would accomplish that goal and ruled out the possibility of deploying ground forces to influence the outcome of Syria’s civil war.

General Martin Dempsey, America’s top military officer, also didn’t directly address Florida Republican Marco Rubio’s concern that Assad might actually be emboldened if the United States attempt to degrade his ability to use chemical weapons. If Assad used poison gas when he felt the rebellion threatened his survival, wouldn’t possibly tilting the balance of the civil war in the insurgents’ favor by attacking his regime exacerbate such a fear, he wondered.

Kerry did warn against the consequences of inaction. “If you’re Assad,” he asked, “or if you’re any one of the other despots in that region, and the United States steps back from this moment together with our other allies and friends — what is the message?”

Hagel elaborated that inaction in Syria could “undermine America’s other security commitments. The word of the United States must mean something,” he said.

President Barack Obama called for a punitive expedition against Syria on Saturday but wants Congress’ approval before initiating hostilities.

While the president is expected to get approval from the Senate, where his own party is in the majority, a vote in the House of Representatives might turn out only narrowly in favor of military action. Democratic and Republican Party leaders in the body, including House speaker John Boehner, support the president but dozens of pacifist Democrats and noninterventionist Republicans, weary after more than a decade of war in the Middle East, could turn down the administration’s request.

America Condemns Syrian Gas Attack, Seen Preparing Strikes

The American aircraft carrier USS Enterprise sails alongside the United StatesS Dwight D. Eisenhower during an exercise in the Arabian Sea, September 27, 2012
The American aircraft carrier USS Enterprise sails alongside the United StatesS Dwight D. Eisenhower during an exercise in the Arabian Sea, September 27, 2012 (USN/Scott Pittman)

After nearly a week of internal deliberations and international debate over what appeared to be a chemical weapons attack in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear on Monday where America stands — and where it believes the blame rests.

In a short statement at the State Department in front of reporters, Kerry delivered by far the most forceful message that has come out of the Obama Administration since the Syrian regime allegedly gassed hundreds of civilians in a suburb of the capital Damascus.

“Let me be clear,” he Kerry. “The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders, by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. There is a reason that President Obama has made clear to the Assad regime that this international norm cannot be violated without consequences.” Read more “America Condemns Syrian Gas Attack, Seen Preparing Strikes”

Kerry Persuades Israel, Palestinians to Enter Peace Talks

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas addresses a press conference in Whitehall, London, January 16, 2012
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas addresses a press conference in Whitehall, London, January 16, 2012 (Cabinet Office)

America’s secretary of state John Kerry concluded his meetings with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas on Friday with a last-minute commitment to return to peace talks with the Israelis. The agreement, which came after four days of intense shuttle diplomacy by Kerry, could lead to proper negotiations in Washington DC next week, the first in five years. Read more “Kerry Persuades Israel, Palestinians to Enter Peace Talks”

Kerry-Lavrov Agreement Unlikely to Affect Syrian War

As far as Arab and European countries and the United States are concerned, Russia has been anything but helpful in Syria. Three United Nations Security Council resolutions that would have sanctioned Syrian president Bashar Assad were vetoed by the Russians who have continued to sell military equipment to his regime.

Secretary of State John Kerry sought to snap that streak when he traveled to Moscow last week and, to his credit, succeeded in one respect: getting the Russians to publicly support a transitional government in Syria.

Secretary Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov both reaffirmed their commitment to the Geneva communiqué that the two powers signed in June of last year. It called for negotiations between the Assad regime and opposition in pursuit of an interim government. 

Kerry was so upbeat about his most recent trip to Russia that he speculated that his new Syria initiative could begin in early June and said that a tremendous amount of preparation had already been done.

Yet to the frustration of both the Americans and Russians, pledging allegiance to the Geneva accord and the theory of a transitional government in Syria is premised on the assumption that negotiations can stop the shooting and resolve the civil war. Despite both sides in the conflict deploying evermore brutal violence, the European Union and the United States still seem to hope that cooler heads will eventually prevail and that, however horrible the situation in Syria may be, its ramifications can be contained within Syria’s borders.

The Syrians who are doing the fighting and dying do not appear to be viewing the Kerry-Lavrov initiative the same way. Grotesque scenes of massacres along sectarian lines, the execution of prisoners of war and the mutilation of bodies do not suggest that there is much room for meaningful talks.

There have been no goodwill gestures from either the Assad regime or opposition umbrella groups besides public interest in the diplomatic route. As much as Russia, the United Nations and the United States might like to see a negotiated settlement, the protagonists are nowhere near agreement on the issues that are so important to ending the carnage: whether Assad can be a part of the equation; what Syria will look like in the future; how transitional justice for war crimes will be meted out; who will be allowed to serve in a transitional administration.

The reality is that the fractious rebel movement on the ground, combined with President Assad’s determination to prevail and the radicalization that is taking place along sectarian and ideological lines, is not an environment that suits diplomacy well.

Diplomacy can only succeed if one side is convinced that it will lose or if the combatants are convinced that they have more to gain from talking than fighting. Since both Assad and his opponents are going for broke and engaging in even more horrific human rights abuses, the compromise that Kerry and Lavrov are talking about, however commendable, is unlikely to yield anything concrete.

Initiative to Restart Peace Talks Stalls over Israeli Objections

Solving the rift between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators is difficult enough when both are in the middle of a diplomatic session. But it is even harder when the two sides cannot agree on the terms of diplomacy to begin with.

This is what Secretary of State John Kerry is experiencing in the Holy Land only a few months on the job and despite three high level visits to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

No one assumed that getting the lagging peace process off the ground would be an easy task. Kerry, during his most recent visits to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, acknowledged as much when he told a news conference that everyone, even he, had a lot of homework to do before talks could resume.

It was a polite way of saying that Israel and the Palestinians are still far apart on the issues that have long divided them, including the final borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlements. Read more “Initiative to Restart Peace Talks Stalls over Israeli Objections”

Kerry Could Revive 2002 Israeli-Palestinian Peace Plan

Much like President Barack Obama’s trip to the Middle East last month, the White House played down a weekend visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories by Secretary of State John Kerry who talked with officials from both sides in what is dubbed a “quiet” effort on the part of the United States to revive the peace process.

Kerry spoke with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas at his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah as well as Israeli president Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Other than words that peace is desirable, possible and in the interest of all parties involved, nothing exciting was produced from all of Kerry’s meetings. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians are, after all, widely divided on the core issues, let alone what a final settlement should look like. And despite talk of wanting to move the peace process forward, the mistrust between Jerusalem and Ramallah is at such a height that ordinary Palestinians are no longer sure that a two-state solution is possible anymore.

Yet with John Kerry, the United States have an intensely focused diplomat with decades of experience in containing conflicts and finding ways to resolve them. Those who know the former Democratic senator well acknowledge that he has long taken a special interest in solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Kerry’s three trips to the Middle East in under a month is a testament to that desire and while recent diplomacy is certainly not on par with the Henry Kissinger and James Baker tours of previous decades, it is a strong signal that the Obama Administration wants to be more proactive than less. Read more “Kerry Could Revive 2002 Israeli-Palestinian Peace Plan”

John Kerry: From Swiftboating to Swift Confirmation

Democratic senator John Kerry of Massachusetts speaks with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, October 21, 2009
Democratic senator John Kerry of Massachusetts speaks with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, October 21, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

John Kerry’s ascension to the position of secretary of state isn’t just the culmination of one’s man career in public service. The successful nomination to this post of the man who went down to defeat against President George W. Bush in 2004, who many expected could lose his reelection at the time, is a reversal of fortune few could have anticipated eight years ago.

Kerry’s fast confirmation to the position he now holds, with the near universal support of Republicans who have not been in the business of supporting President Barack Obama, is not only a reflection of his own qualifications and expertise. It’s indicative of a sea change in American politics since the 2004 election and an admission from the right that the Kerry worldview was right all along.

Yet the anti-war crowd wasn’t always so ascendant. Read more “John Kerry: From Swiftboating to Swift Confirmation”

As Secretary, Kerry Likely to Stress Diplomacy With Iran

Early next year, Massachusetts senator John Kerry is likely to be appointed to the job that many officials in Washington DC believe that he always wanted: that of secretary of state.

When President Barack Obama announced last week that Kerry was his pick to replace Hillary Clinton, who previously said that she would serve only a single term in the job, neither Democrats nor Republicans were at all surprised. Even before the nomination was made, Senator John McCain jokingly referred to his colleague as “Mr Secretary.” The implication being that if nominated, Kerry will likely sail through the Senate confirmation process without major hiccups.

Kerry’s foreign policy views are nevertheless at odds with those of many conservatives in the legislature. Like most Democrats, he has been a vocal proponent of engaging with America’s enemies and working in the United Nations as a constructive member state. As a presidential candidate against George W. Bush in 2004, his repeated references to the United Nations got him into some trouble with the electorate, which largely regards the multilateral body as superfluous at best, but as a potential secretary of state, that very obsession with multilateralism and coalition-building should be quite useful. Read more “As Secretary, Kerry Likely to Stress Diplomacy With Iran”

Obama Considering Centrists for Top Cabinet Positions

Democratic senator John Kerry of Massachusetts speaks with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, October 21, 2009
Democratic senator John Kerry of Massachusetts speaks with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, October 21, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

After United Nations ambassador Susan Rice asked President Barack Obama not to be considered as Hillary Clinton’s replacement as secretary of state, Massachusetts senator and former Democratic Party presidential candidate John Kerry is expected to be elevated to the cabinet next year. Several Americans news media report that former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel could replace Leon Panetta at the Defense Department in line with Obama’s first term promise to have at least at least one Republican serving in his administration. Read more “Obama Considering Centrists for Top Cabinet Positions”

Interventionists Republicans Oppose Interventionist Rice

When Hillary Clinton retires as secretary of state in January, President Barack Obama may nominate United Nations ambassador Susan Rice to replace her. Several Republican lawmakers have been highly critical of Rice in recent weeks, however, even if those same lawmakers share her interventionist foreign policy views.

Although Republicans cannot block Rice’s appointment in the Senate, they can stall it. Politico reported earlier this month that they would much prefer Massachusetts senator John Kerry over Rice. The president is supposed to consider him for either the position of secretary of defense or state, although Kerry has made clear he would only accept the latter. Read more “Interventionists Republicans Oppose Interventionist Rice”