In a press conference held in the middle of the day on Friday, August 30, U.S. secretary of state John Kerry made a compelling argument to the American people that the United States must respond militarily to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its people.
Kerry, speaking from the Treaty Room of the State Department just four days after a press briefing in which he declared the use of chemical weapons on Syrians a “moral obscenity,” informed the American people that there is no longer any doubt that it was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – Kerry called him “a thug and a murderer” – and Assad’s regime which used chemical weapons on its people.
The U.S. administration is declassifying a great deal of the information it has about the use of chemical weapons, so that the American people can participate in deciding upon the next step this country will take, was the main thrust of the message. Nevertheless, the secretary of state left absolutely no doubt that this administration believes the correct step to take, the only moral step to take, is to respond with military force.
“We know the Assad regime has the largest chemical weapons program in the Middle East, we know the regime used chemical weapons multiple times this year, we know it was used to rid the Damascus neighborhood of the opposition, and we know when and from where it was launched and where it landed.
“we know it went only from the regime-controlled areas and that it went only to opposition-controlled areas,” Kerry said.
Kerry made many critically important points during his fact-filled half hour talk, including that corroborating evidence relied upon was gathered by ordinary Syrian citizens, in order to quell questions about the validity of the reports.
A particularly telling fact pointing to the guilt of the Assad regime was that after everyone knew chemical weapons had been used – the rows of dead bodies wrapped in white sheets with no blood, no shrapnel left little doubt – Kerry himself called upon the Syrian government to allow in inspectors immediately, give them unfettered access to make a determination about who was responsible.
“Instead, the response was four days of shelling to destroy the evidence. The shelling was four times higher during those four days than it had been during the previous ten days,” Kerry said.
With 1,429 Syrians, at least 426 of them children, killed by the “indiscriminate, inconceivable” use of chemical weapons unleashed by the Assad regime, Kerry warned the American people, and this country’s allies, against failing to act.
Having laid out the evidence of what happened and who did it, Kerry then turned to the question at hand.
“The primary question is no longer what do we know, the question now is what are we going to do about it?”
The secretary of state reminded his listeners that the world was watching to see what would happen next. “Does the U.S. and its friends mean what it says? Will Syria be allowed to get away with” having used this heinous weapon on its own citizens? And the U.S. response will be sending a signal not only to Damascus, but “also to Iran, to Hezbollah, and to North Korea.”
After pressing hard on the terrible historic shame of failing to act when presented with incontrovertible evidence, Kerry then assured Americans about who else has squarely placed the blame on Assad, and has demanded the Syrian regime not be permitted to escape the consequences of its actions.
It was no accident that Kerry listed off the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Countries and Turkey as having firmly condemned Syria for its crime. If the organized Arab world supports a smackdown of Assad, then surely that segment of the world cannot blame America for acting.
And then the biggest elephant still standing in the room, the United Nations, was center stage.
After paying homage to the U.N. and its inspectors, Kerry artfully pointed out that the world body is not vested with the mandate to make any determination about who is responsible for what happened. Instead, all the U.N. can do is to confirm that the crime occurred. And then, after pointing out that Russia, with certainty, will block any effort to move forward in the Security Council, Kerry completed threading his needle.
The path forward is for the administration to talk to congress, to continue talking to its allies and to speak with the American people. But there is no doubt, based upon this masterful speech given by John Kerry, that this U.S. administration firmly believes the U.S. must and will respond militarily.
Appealing to the left wing of his own party, a vocal sector that is virtually always opposed to military action anywhere, Kerry took a page from what most ardently pro-Israel people have been trying to explain to the world for many years. “Just longing for peace does not bring it about,” Kerry explained.
There was even at least a paragraph of pure patriotism, a few sentences about “who we are” and that we will “make our own decisions on our timeline, based on our values and our own interests.”
Finally, the speech concluded with an assurance that any military action taken by the United States will not resemble what happened “in Iraq, in Afghanistan, or even in Libya.”
“There will be no boots on the ground, there will be a limited and tailored response to and accountability for the use of chemical weapons,” Kerry asserted.
Despite this entire speech laying out the inexorability of the U.S. taking military action against the Syrian regime, the secretary of state nonetheless concluded by stating that “the diplomatic process is the only way to ultimately resolve” the problems in Syria. There has to be a political, not a military, determination in order to move the region forward.
“The most heinous weapons must never again be used against the most vulnerable people,” were the last words, and a reminder again about why and when this administration is prepared to act in a way that seems to contradict what its own base would otherwise expect.
The use of force to block the use of a far greater, obscenely violent response, is the justification for a military response from this pacifist, diplomacy-centric administration.
About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the US correspondent for The Jewish Press. She is a recovered lawyer who previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools.
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