Kerry Gaffe on Syria Takes on Life of its Own

by Jasmin Ramsey

You’re no doubt aware by now of a proposal by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for Syria to hand over its (still only accidentally acknowledged) chemical weapons to international control, which his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moualem said Syria “welcomes”. Syrian ally Russia was jumpstarted into action after Secretary of State John Kerry apparently went off script in London today by floating the proposal (suggested over a year ago by former Senator Richard G. Lugar) and doubting its feasibility in the same sentence after CBS reporter Margaret Brennan asked if there was any way Syria could avert military action:

Sure, if 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.

Novelist Teju Cole has broken all this down for us in Twitter-speak

While it’s too soon to get excited with the proposal’s details still in the making, Kerry’s words have taken on a life of their own (though some have suggested this was at least somehow related to a behind-the-scenes diplomatic maneuver).

The State Department and White House seem to have forgotten to talk to each other before issuing statements on all this earlier today. State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf called Kerry’s words “hypothetical” and “rhetorical” and said the Russian proposal was considered “highly unlikely”. She also — wait for this — categorically stated that “the Secretary was not making a proposal.” Later the White House said during its daily press briefing that it would take a “hard look” at the Russian proposal, but Press Secretary Jay Carney also repeatedly emphasized that all this would not have occurred without the credible threat of force against President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged actions. He meanwhile urged Congress to vote for an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against Syria, which the administration has been strongly pushing for, and which Kerry’s words may have now endangered.

Speaking at the White House during a Forum to Combat Wildlife Trafficking immediately after Carney’s appearance, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she had just met with President Obama and seemed to have the most updated speech on the issue:

…if the regime immediately surrendered its stockpiles to international control as was suggested by Secretary Kerry and the Russians, that would be an important step. But this cannot be another excuse for delay or obstruction.

While many are labelling Kerry’s words a “gaffe”, Clinton strategically tried to frame it as a purposeful move by Kerry, being forced, of course, to include the Russians. Perhaps the White House is hoping everyone will eventually forget Harf’s opposing description.

In any case, here’s Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting Ben Rhodes with the most recent WH statement:

It should also be noted that earlier in the day UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had said following the Russian announcement that he was “considering urging the Security Council to demand the immediate transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons and chemical precursor stocks to places inside Syria where they can be safely stored and destroyed” if it was proven that chemical weapons have been used.

It will be interesting to see how Obama tackles all this during his many scheduled interviews today and during his speech to the nation Tuesday night wherein he will urge for military action against Syria, especially considering how a majority of Americans continue to oppose it, even after the release of those horrific videos of the Syrian victims of the Aug. 21 attack.

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.



  1. Kerry’s dare or demand sounds very much like George HW Bush’s ultimatum in February, 1991, that Saddam remove all of his troops from Kuwait City within two days, and from the rest of Kuwait within one week- something that was logistically impossible- rather satisfy the Soviet proposal that would have allowed several weeks to leave. The Bush Administration, aware of the impossibility of its demands, and seeking a reason to crush Saddam, would not compromise on its deadline.

    It is ironic that Bush argued that the underlying principle of his policy was to protect the integrity of the sovereignty and borders of a member UN State. In contrast, for the past two and one-half years, Syria’s borders have been repeatedly violated, and would again be violated by the U.S. and its proxies if the U.S were to initiate a military strike against Syria.

    Apart from being able to bully our allies with military muscle and/or bribe them with financial carrots, do Obama and Kerry think any foreign leader will be able take them seriously after this fiasco? They need to use a bit of statesmanship, admit the error, and disengage. By calling Kerry’s bluff, Russia is also giving Obama and Kerry a way out to walk away with something and save face. This is not unlike Khrushchev’s offer to Kennedy to remove the Soviet Union’s missiles from Cuba in exchange for the U.S. dismantling of its missiles in Turkey. The question is, will Obama and Kerry be smart enough to recognize its value and accept the deal?

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