Secretary of State John Kerry waits to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013, before the House Armed Services Committee hearing on Syria on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Ever since Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to stumble into a diplomatic way out of the Syrian chemical weapons crisis, the media have had trouble deciding which cliché best describes his persona.
Is he a droning bore or a Biden-league gaffe machine? A Mr. Magoo, safely bumbling through dire dangers, or a shrewd strategist secretly in full control of the situation, his foot-in-mouth moments actually clever feints in the world’s largest poker game?
And depending on how the Syrian situation is resolved, they’ll be asking, Is he (like his boss) a world-class chump or champ?
However the diplomacy works out—Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are talking in Geneva as Putin preens and Assad makes dead-end demands—you gotta give Kerry credit for getting the ball rolling. The Syrian crisis changed, literally overnight, when CBS reporter Margaret Brennan asked him at a London press conference on Monday if there was anything Assad “could do or offer that would stop [a US military] attack?” “Sure,” Kerry said, as we all now know. “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 a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”
The State Department walked that back, saying Kerry was merely “making a rhetorical argument.” So most media decided that his suggestion was just another gaffe—after all, he had just given them a real flub to snark at, his idiotic promise that any US strike on Syria would be “unbelievably small.” (Obama had to walk that back, saying, “The US does not do pinpricks.”)
But then of course Putin and Assad took Kerry up on the offer, more or less. As difficult as it will be to reach, much less enforce, an international plan to secure and destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal, the whole world sighed in relief. And Kerry-to-the-rescue surprised everyone.
Including himself, according to Andy Borowitz, who “quotes” Kerry saying:
“Whether as a senator, a Presidential candidate, or Secretary of State, I’ve devoted countless hours to thunderous and droning speeches that people have consistently tuned out,” he said. “So naturally, to be listened to all of a sudden came as something of a shock.”
Even after Russia jumped at Kerry’s proposal, most media continued to portray it as a faux pas. Maureen Dowd sniped, “The bumbling approach climaxed with two off-the-cuff remarks by Kerry.” Jon Stewart said Kerry’s “ill-thought-out hypothetical statement” was an act “of Magoo-esque accidental genius,” while Joe Scarborough called the whole thing “Mr. Magoo’s foreign policy.”
More biting, Andrew Sullivan scoffed that, “Kerry, who is already doing a huge amount to make Hillary Clinton’s tenure at Foggy Bottom look magisterial, winged it,” adding, “Sometimes, it seems, Kerry’s incompetence strikes gold.” (After Obama’s Tuesday night speech on Syria, Sullivan went back to favoring the president with a “meep meep,” as one reader complained he’d “gone from slamming Obama for being imperial, idealistic, bloodthirsty, foolhardy…to praising him for his subtlety, nuance, willingness to listen, and so on.” Sullivan hasn’t, however, extended the hosannas to Kerry.)
But as it turned out, Kerry’s statement wasn’t a gaffe or ill thought-out, and he didn’t entirely wing it. “This wasn’t an accident,” a top White House official told The Huffington Post.
In fact, as the Times reported, Obama had raised the idea of securing Syria’s chemical weapons with Putin as far back as June 2012, at the G-20 summit in Mexico. In May of this year, Kerry discussed it with Putin, who asked him to work on the issue with foreign minister Lavrov; Lavrov and Kerry spoke more frequently after the August 21 sarin gas attack that killed some 1400 Syrians outside of Damascus. And before committing his “gaffe,” Kerry was briefed on Putin and Obama’s conversation at the G-20 summit last week about how Syria might prevent US air strikes by surrendering its chemical stockpiles. That conversation was “more constructive than previous conversations on this subject,” an administration official told the Times. “But there was not yet an indication that this could be ripe enough for immediate action.”
Kerry made it ripe, and Putin plucked it off the tree. Whether Kerry intended to make the proposal public when he did is less important than that he consciously (not Magoo-like) let it leave his lips—unlike Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who when asked a nearly identical question by NPR two weeks ago, dodged the question (saying, “I don’t speculate on hypothetical situations”). Kerry, purposely, didn’t dodge.
So was this all planned out, Kerry’s words less slips than tricks-of-the-tongue, long-game moves to throw off foes from Fox News to Vladimir and Bashar? Maybe Kerry isn’t a doofus or a Magoo but a Machiavelli.
Of course, Kerry, like most people, can’t be so neatly packaged. What comes out of his mouth is the result of intention and impulse, foresight and blind spots. Let’s give him props, much as we did Joe Biden for revealing, apparently without White House approval, that Obama supported gay marriage—a revelation that, contrary to fears it would cost him votes in the 2012 election, helped set off waves of equal-marriage legislation and court decisions.
Obama critics can’t stop complaining that his Syria policies don’t follow a straight line. But with luck, the administration’s zig-zagging will lead to a Cuban missile crisis–like solution—achieved back then through a much messier process than the smooth version John and Robert Kennedy presented to the public.
Howard Fineman had it right, likening “America’s ever-evolving policy on Syria” to “Middle Eastern bazaars" where "it’s easy to get lost, haggling is the order of the day, and things are never quite what they seem.”
The way media gravitate toward either/or clichés parallels the either/or choices they’ve tended to present on Syria: either attack militarily or do nothing.
But now an idea has expanded the world’s imagination, making it thinkable that we’re not stuck between two untenable choices. We’ve crossed a blue line and discovered this third thing, diplomacy, which until this week was dismissed as unworkable. And whatever happens, it will be that much harder to go back to seeing this crisis, and maybe future ones, in blinding two dimensions.
Read John Nichols on Obama's decision to pursue a more dipolomatic path in regards to Syria.