Kerry Beats The War Drums

by Patrick Appel

Max Fisher calls Kerry’s Syria speech today a “war speech”:

It’s difficult to find a single sentence in Secretary of State John Kerry’s forceful and at points emotional press conference on Syria that did not sound like a direct case for imminent U.S. military action against Syria. It was, from the first paragraph to the 15th, a war speech.

That doesn’t mean that full-on war is coming; the Obama administration appears poised for a limited campaign of off-shore strikes, probably cruise missiles and possible air strikes. President Obama has long signaled that he has no interest in a full, open-ended or ground-based intervention and there’s no reason to believe his calculus has changed. But Kerry’s language and tone were unmistakable. He was making the case for, and signaling that the United States planned to pursue, military action against another country. As my colleagues Karen DeYoung and Anne Gearan wrote, “Kerry left little doubt that the decision for the United States is not whether to take military action, but when.”

You can watch the speech above or read the transcript here. Kerry’s speech hinges entirely on the moral depravity of chemical weapons and our alleged responsibility to enforce the taboo against them. Larison sees this as a bad reason to start a new war:

There is a broad, almost universally shared taboo against the use of chemical weapons. Attacking Syria doesn’t strengthen or reinforce that taboo.

Choosing not to bomb a country whose government has used these weapons does not signal approval of that use, and launching some cruise missiles at government forces in response to that use isn’t going to keep them from being used in the future. All that it does do is potentially invite Syrian retaliation against the U.S. and its clients and allies. At best, it is a reaction designed to show that the U.S. will “do something” while achieving nothing, and at worst it is the beginning of the slide towards escalation to a major war.

Earlier today, Fisher spelled out the cases for and against intervention in Syria. One of the arguments against military force:

Military intervention in a protracted foreign conflict can take on its own logic that makes escalation very difficult to stop. The Obama administration might have the intention of launching just one series of strikes and then backing off, but in practice that’s rarely what happens. Domestic politics, international pressure and short-term military thinking can all lead a very limited campaign to snowball into a more open-ended one. That’s particularly true if the goals of the initial strikes are vague or poorly defined.

Drum argues that half-measures against Assad are unlikely to succeed. Preventing him from using chemical weapons would require “committing ourselves to full-scale war against Assad”:

It’s possible that enforcing international norms against chemical attacks is important enough to make that worth it. But that’s the question we should be asking ourselves. A “punishment” air strike is a joke, little more than a symbol of helplessness to be laughed off as the nuisance it is. If we want to change Assad’s behavior, we’ll have to declare war against him.