Yesterday, Secretary Kerry made an off-the-cuff statement in response to a question which derailed the White House’s agenda for the day. Today Kerry claimed during a congressional hearing, when prompted by Rep. Johnson, that he had intended to raise this proposal all along.
Secretary Kerry was speaking in London when he was asked if there was anything Syria could do to avoid a strike by the U.S. Kerry replied “Sure, 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 the full and total accounting for that, but he isn’t about to do it and…can’t be done obviously.”
Within hours of saying this, an unnamed official had told CNN that Kerry’s statement was a “major goof” and added that Kerry “clearly went off script.”
Separately, a spokesperson for State sent an email to multiple reporters clarifying that “Secretary Kerry was making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons…” A rhetorical argument is not a proposal.
Before leaving the UK Kerry had a pre-scheduled phone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. During that call it was Lavrov who brought up Kerry’s comments. According to Reuters, Kerry flatly told Lavrov that his comments were not intended to be a proposal of any kind. Reuters quotes Kerry saying he voiced “serious skepticism” when Lavrov suggested they should explore the possibility.
Over at the White House press room Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken was on hand to reinforce the 40-minute pro-strike speech which Susan Rice had just concluded. Blinken was asked “Does that mean that the Secretary of State when he mentioned this idea in Britain earlier today that that was a proposal coming from this administration?” Blinken replied “No, no, no we literally just heard about this when you did.” Pressed on this point Blinken added “I believe [Kerry] was speaking hypothetically…”
At the State Department, spokesperson Marie Harf was also asked whether Kerry was making a proposal. She replied “the Secretary was not making a proposal…The Secretary was making a rhetorical statement…”
So we have it from Kerry himself, from a State spokesman by email, from Deputy National Security Adviser Blinken, from State’s spokeswoman and from CNN’s unnamed source that this was not a proposal. Kerry was making a rhetorical point, i.e. an off-the-cuff remark, about something which could not happen. The Russians seized on this and Kerry and State expressed skepticism of their intentions.
And yet this morning in a congressional hearing Secretary Kerry claimed this had all been part of a plan. During his opening remarks (around 21:00) Kerry said:
Yesterday we challenged the regime to turn them over to the secure control of the international community so that they could be destroyed. And that of course would be the ultimate way to degrade and deter Assad’s arsenal and it is the ideal way to take this weapon away from him. Assad’s chief benefactor, the Russians, have responded by saying that they would come up with a proposal to do exactly that and we have made it clear to them, I have in several conversations with Foreign Minister Lavrov that this cannot be a process of delay. This cannot be a process of avoidance. It has to be real, has to be measurable, tangible and it is exceedingly difficult, I want everybody here to know, to fulfill those conditions. But we’re waiting for that proposal but we’re not waiting for long.
Later, as if to reaffirm the point that Kerry’s remarks were intentional, Rep. Hank Johnson had the following extremely awkward exchange with Kerry. I’m transcribing it at length because video is not yet available and because it’s clearly the template for what the administration is now claiming really happened yesterday:
Rep. Johnson: You are a man who has always meant what he said and said what he meant isn’t that a fact?
Sec. Kerry: [embarrassed laughter] That’s…I’ve tried certainly congressman, I’ve tried.
Johnson: Well, I mean, so for anyone to think that you would say something off-the-cuff without meaning it is probably mistaken. Would you agree?
Kerry: Well I’m not, I’m not speaking off-the-cuff and sometimes when I do I get in trouble, so…
Johnson: I know you do not speak off-the-cuff and so the other day, Monday, yesterday when you mentioned about a way forward for Syria to be able to avoid…uh, a United States military response to the use of chemical weapons you did not misspeak, did you?
Kerry: No I didn’t misspeak [crosstalk].
Johnson: You meant to say what you said at that time. Isn’t that correct?
Kerry: I did.
Johnson: Now over the last week you and President Obama were at the G20 conference or during that week at various times you were there, you…
Kerry: I actually didn’t. I was at the European conference in Vilnius. I did not go to St. Petersburg.
Johnson: Okay, all right, so the President was able to speak with uh…uh…
Kerry: President Putin.
Johnson: President Putin while at the G20 conference in St. Petersburg and they discussed this way forward for Syria to be able to avoid a military response.
Johnson: And isn’t it a fact that this proposal that some say was made by President Putin is something that both President Obama and President Putin are responsible for.
Kerry: Well, it’s been discussed yes and I think that is fair. But I think the most…
Johnson: And you actually discussed it yourself with the Foreign Minister of uh, of uh…Russia, Mr. Lavrov…Lavrov, correct? This past weekend?
Johnson: And so it was no mistake that on Monday you were ready to come forward with this proposal.
Kerry: Well, I was asked about it…
Johnson: Yeah, you were asked about it and because you’re a man who means what he says and says what he means you responded appropriately and thus it became a public issue. Now my purpose for going through this is first to congratulate the Obama administration for the way it has handled this dicey, delicate issue. And I myself am hopeful that going down the two tracks the administration has laid forth–one military, the other diplomacy–that we will be able to accomplish the objective of uh, of this entire matter without using force.
So in 24-hours we’ve gone from the administration insisting that Kerry spoke rhetorically, never intended to propose anything and in fact made a “major goof” to the claim that he was definitely making a proposal (or challenge in Kerry’s words) based on prior, secret negotiations between Obama and Putin.
This is a gossamer-thin attempt to repair another major blunder on Syria. Kerry’s off-the-cuff remarks were seized upon by Russia, likely as a stalling tactic, and wound up stepping all over Susan Rice’s case for war. The Obama administration has become a comedy of errors and, as in any comedy, we appear headed for a happy ending whether the characters deserve one or not.