By Paolo von Schirach
August 30, 2013
WASHINGTON – On August 30 Secretary of State John Kerry presented the most comprehensive US Government legal, political and moral case against Syria. In a most compelling and quite convincing manner Kerry described in detail the facts that establish Syria’s clear responsibility for a major chemical weapons attack against civilians. In so doing, the Assad regime is in clear breach of international norms that ban the use of chemical weapons.
Strong case, but little action
Having established all this, it is clear, continued Kerry, that there has to be retribution. Such heinous acts cannot go unpunished. Quite frankly, given the powerful language and forceful delivery, it would not have been unreasonable to expect an equally powerful closing. Something like: “We shall pursue this vile regime in Damascus with all the means at our disposal. We shall not rest until Assad and his men are brought to justice and their regime dismantled”.
But that’s not how Kerry harangue ended. It ended on a smallish tone. He said that, whatever action may be undertaken by the United States, it will be limited, and not aimed at eliminating the Assad regime. No “regime change” for Syria. The US will not become involved in the ongoing Syrian conflict. This is not going to be another Iraq, and so on. Anyway, you get the picture. The talk was great. But it is mostly talk.
Obama promised little, “limited” action in a passionless tone
Act two in this now diminished drama took place a bit later, when President Obama made a few, pointed remarks on Syria at the White House, before a meeting with leaders of the Baltic Countries. His tone was decidedly flat. None of Kerry’s elegant and flowery prose. While Kerry had the advantage of reading a carefully prepared speech, nonetheless the contrast between his fiery rhetoric and Obama’s flat tone was quite noticeable.
Quite frankly Obama looked and sounded like a disappointed Head Master announcing that there will have to be disciplinary action against unruly students who engaged in acts of vandalism. Something rather serious happened. Some pupils do not understand discipline, and they will be dealt with.
Obama sounded stern but not especially outraged. He did say that the United States will not stand by as major international norms are broken. But he added that any US action will be “limited”. It will be a “narrow act”. There will be no “open-ended” intervention. And, just in case you were wondering, God forbid, there will not be any “US boots on the ground”. The whole US response will have a “narrow” focus, and so on. In other words, this Syria business is serious, but not “that” serious.
Kerry set the right tone, at the beginning
Well, call me sentimental; but I really liked Secretary Kerry’s speech, at least until its rather flat end. In the best American tradition, Kerry blended a well presented legal case with a terse, fact based narrative. He invoked principles, the universal principles of human decency that are the foundations of America and that still inspire its conduct. He talked about a world of laws. His voice seemed to tremble a bit when he described the corpses of little Syrian children killed by chemical agents. He talked about the need to act forcefully. But then the whole thing lost steam, and the speech ended rather poorly.
Assad should not worry too much
Kerry succumbed to the political imperative of toning the whole thing down. He knows that most Americans do not wnat any more wars. Therefore he had to stress that , while Assad may be a thug, we are not really after him. We just want to “give him a lesson”.
And what came from Obama, the Commander in Chief, was truly uninspiring. His White House remarks were mostly about what America will not do in response to this vile behavior by a brutal regime. As I said in a previous piece, if I were Assad I would not worry too much. This President has no will to deliver a decisive blow against him.
All this stuff about Syria quite frankly is news today only because it is the end of August, Congress is not in session, not much is happening, and this was a slow day.