John Kerry's Morally, Linguistically, and Historically Obscene Case for War in Syria


If we are to take our roles as citizens as "seriously" as members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee claim to take their decision to support the bombing of Syria ("very, very seriously," said Bob Corker [R-Tennesse]; "seriously and solemnly," added Dick Durbin [D-Illinois]), then we really ought to give full attention to the testimony yesterday by the war's principal salesman, Secretary of State John Kerry.

Unfortunately for the politician who made famous the line "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?", Kerry's case in front of the committee was more a textbook example of how acting as the world's policeman for decades has warped the country's values, judgment, and even language.

I counted at least seven moments that qualified in my judgment as obscene, exposing along the way the administration's empty and contradictory arguments for air-mailing death upon a regime that does not pose a direct threat in the United States: 

1)  Repeatedly insisting that the war would not be a "war"

During a testy exchange with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), Kerry introduced into the lexicon of political evasion a jaw-dropping new phrase, war in the classic sense:

[W]e don't want to go to war. We don't believe we are going to war in the classic sense of taking American troops and America to war. The president is asking for the authority to do a limited action that will degrade the capacity of a tyrant who has been using chemical weapons to kill his own people. […]

[W]hen people are asked, do you want to go to war with Syria, of course not! Everybody, a hundred percent of Americans will say no. We say no. We don't want to go to war in Syria either. It's not what we're here to ask. The president is not asking you to go to war. He's not asking you to declare war. He's not asking you to send one American troop to war. He's simply saying we need to take an action that can degrade the capacity of a man who's been willing to kill his own people by breaking a nearly hundred-year- old prohibition, and will we stand up and be counted to say, we won't do that. That's not—I don't—you know, I just don't consider that going to war in the classic sense of coming to Congress and asking for a declaration of war and training troops and sending people abroad and putting young Americans in harm's way.

The 1949 Geneva Conventions, to which the United States is a signatory, is the basic international legal framework of what can and cannot be done during war. There is no definition of what the U.S. plans to do in Syria that doesn't qualify under that treaty:

[T]he present Convention shall apply to all cases of declared war or of any other armed conflict which may arise between two or more of the High Contracting Parties, even if the state of war is not recognized by one of them…. Any difference arising between two States and leading to the intervention of members of the armed forces is an armed conflict within the meaning of Article 2, even if one of the Parties denies the existence of a state of war. It makes no difference how long the conflict lasts, or how much slaughter takes place.

Pretending that a campaign of hostile, deadly bombing overseen by the U.S. military is somehow not a "war" is both an Orwellian mangling of the English language, and a formulation central to the administration's sale. As Kerry said in his prepared remarks,

So let me be clear: President Obama is not asking America to go to war. And I say that sitting next to two men—Secretary Hagel and Chairman Dempsey—who know what war is. Senator McCain knows what war is. They know the difference between going to war and what President Obama is requesting now. We all agree, there will be no American boots on the ground.

There were no American boots on the ground in NATO's 1999 bombing of Kosovo, either, but the 38,000 combat missions over 78 days killed an estimated 500 civilians and changed the political reality on the ground. It was a war.

2) Insisting simultaneously that the military action will be "limited," with no boots on the ground…and also that Assad's behavior could trigger an expanded U.S. retaliation, including boots on the ground.

As seen above, Kerry maintained throughout the day that "there will be no American boots on the ground."Well, except for maybe….

But in the event Syria imploded, for instance, or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of al-Nusra or someone else and it was clearly in the interest of our allies and all of us, the British, the French and others, to prevent those weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the worst elements, I don't want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country.

What-what-WHAT? Kerry then walked the dog back a couple of times. Here's one of them:

And I want to emphasize something. I want to come back to it because I don't want anybody misinterpreting this from earlier. This authorization does not contemplate and should not have any allowance for any troop on the ground. I just want to make that absolutely clear. You know, what I was doing was hypothesizing about a potential it might occur at some point in time, but not in this authorization, in no way—be crystal clear—there's no problem in our having the language that has zero capacity for American troops on the ground within the authorization the president is asking for. I don't want anybody in the media or elsewhere to misinterpret that coming out of here. As I said earlier, I repeat it again now, that's important.

Got it! Except, uh, if Assad responds to being attacked by acting like the illogical, murderous dictator that he's already acting like:

You all have to make a kind of calculation here, just as Assad does. If he is foolish enough to respond to the world's enforcement against his criminal activity, if he does, he will invite something far worse, and I believe, something absolutely unsustainable for him.

So in that case the U.S. would be using its military for regime change, even though the congressional authorization is not about regime change (even if the administration's stated policy since before the authorization is to remove Assad, which would be regime change). But that's OK, because it's still not war!

That doesn't mean the United States of America going to war, as I said in my comments. There are plenty of options here.

3) Using as a causus belli the fact that the U.S. turned away a boat of Jewish refugees from the Third Reich in 1939.

After being asked a series of appropriately skeptical questions from Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), such as "How can we guarantee that one surgical strike will have any impact other than to tighten the vice grip Assad has on his power or allow rebels allied with al-Qaida to gain a stronger foothold in Syria?", Kerry got haughty and uncorked this historical haymaker:

History is full of opportunity of moments where someone didn't stand up and act when it made a difference. And whether you go back to World War II or you look at a ship that was turned away from the coast of Florida and everybody on it lost their lives subsequently to German gas, those are the things that make a difference. And that's what's at stake here.

That ship was the MS St. Louis, which was indeed a historically bungled opportunity. To take in refugees fleeing Hitler. Any usable analogy with refusing to accept Jewish refugees in June 1939 should be focused on the U.S. taking in Syrians displaced by Assad's butchery. And how have we been doing on that score? Abysmally: Just 90 refugees granted permanent asylum in the last two years, with a recent announcement that we'll expand the number to 2,000, though asylum seekers will have to undergo terrorist background checks that could last as long as one year.

To sum up: The administration is so shamed by America's historical behavior with the MS St. Louis that it has accepted only 10 percent the St. Louis's passenger cargo as refugees from Syria in the last two years, yet has seen fit to invoke the lesson as a non-sequitur in its publicity campaign to launch a war that isn't being called a war.

The final insult? Kerry was wrong that "everybody" on the St. Louis "lost their lives subsequently to German gas." Here's the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:

Great Britain took 288 passengers; the Netherlands admitted 181 passengers, Belgium took in 214 passengers; and 224 passengers found at least temporary refuge in France. Of the 288 passengers admitted by Great Britain, all survived World War II save one, who was killed during an air raid in 1940. Of the 620 passengers who returned to continent, 87 (14%) managed to emigrate before the German invasion of Western Europe in May 1940. 532 St. Louis passengers were trapped when Germany conquered Western Europe. Just over half, 278 survived the Holocaust. 254 died: 84 who had been in Belgium; 84 who had found refuge in Holland, and 86 who had been admitted to France.

4) Describing this decision as a "Munich moment"

In a conference call Monday with congressional representatives, Kerry characterized the upcoming Syria vote as a "Munich moment." In his testimony yesterday, he aimed to send "the unmistakable message that when the United States of America and the world say, never again, we don't mean sometimes; we don't mean somewhere; never means never."

Along with the MS St. Louis anecdote above, the three Hitler references center on the infamous September 1938 Munich Agreement, at which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Premier Edouard Daladier handed western Czechoslovakia to the expansionist Nazi dictator without representatives of Czechoslovakia even being present, and despite the fact that France had treaty obligations to defend the Czechs from attack. That act of appeasement and treachery is to the Syrian civil war what a fish is to a bicycle.

"Munich" has been the go-to historical analogy for every sizable U.S. intervention since World War II. As former Armed Services Committee staffer Jeffrey Record wrote in a March 1998 Air War College paper titled Perils of Reasoning by Historical Analogy: Munich, Vietnam, and American Use of Force Since 1945, "Reasoning by historical analogy can be dangerous, especially if such reasoning is untempered by recognition that no two historical events are identical and that the future is more than a linear extension of the past….In Vietnam…Munich blinded rather than enlightened American policy-makers….[And] helped lay the foundation for the very disaster, memories of which today shape U.S. policy just as profoundly as did Munich in Southeast Asia."

5) Denying that the U.S. is the self-appointed policeman of the world.

Sen. Udall made another worthwhile and factually accurate point:

To the international community we're saying once again the United States will be the world's policeman. You break a law, and the United States will step in. We are on shaky international legal foundations with this potential strike[.]

In many ways, this is one of the key questions about U.S. foreign policy, about which there is plenty of dispute: Is playing the world's policeman a wise, cost-effective, or legal role? Kerry responded with a humdinger of a euphemism:

[Y]ou raised the question of doesn't this make the United States the policeman of the world. No. It makes the United States a multilateral partner in an effort that the world, 184 nations strong, has accepted the responsibility for.

Besides attempting to sustain the cognitive dissonance of having a strategy to remove Assad but seeking the authorization to only lob bombs at him, the administration is attempting to claim the mantle of international legitimacy for a strike that has no international legal footing, and which almost the entire rest of the world has chosen not to join.

6) Making the laugh-out-loud claim that a post-Assad Syria will be "secular."

A classic lie, when selling Americans on intervening in civil wars from Vietnam to Nicaragua to Iraq, is over-hyping the democratic and peace-loving credenials of the side who stands to gain most from U.S. military intervention. Here are a couple of passages from Kerry, in response to understandable concerns by senators that the opposition to Assad is composed of Islamic militants:

The opposition has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution, which will be broad-based and secular with respect to the future of Syria. And that's very critical. […]

I would also say to you, Syria historically has been secular, and the vast majority of Syrians, I believe, want to remain secular. It's—it's our judgment that—and the judgment of our good friends who actually know a lot of this in many ways better than we do because it's their region, their neighborhood—I'm talking about the Saudis, the Emirates, the Qataris, the Turks, the Jordanians—they all believe that if you could have a fairly rapid transition, the secular component of Syria will re-emerge […]

[T]he fundamentals of Syria are secular, and I believe, will stay that way.

The recent historical record of secular dictators in the Muslim world being removed suggests that Kerry's optimism is fantasia.

7) Asking us to trust U.S. intelligence on chemical weapons because of James Clapper.

Presented with historically understandable skepticism about the quality of U.S. intelligence about Assad using chemical weapons, Kerry said this:

The intelligence community, represented by DNI Clapper, has released a public document, unclassified, available for all to see in which they make their judgment with high confidence that the facts are as they have set forth. So you know, I think that speaks for itself.

Clapper, as you may recall, is a sworn liar. That, like so much of Kerry's testimony yesterday, indeed speaks for itself.