The Kerry Syria Gaffe that Wasn’t?

by Jasmin Ramsey

*This post has been updated

Yesterday we charted the way Secretary of State John Kerry’s seemingly off-handed answer to a question about how Syria could deter a US strike morphed into what’s now being referred to as the “Lavrov Proposal“. As far as I can tell, it was Kerry’s predecessor Hillary Clinton who first publicly described the proposal for Syria to turn in its chemical weapons to international monitors as a US-Russian initiative (before she talked about endangered wildlife), rather than Russia seizing upon a US slip of the tongue, which is what it really looked liked. Well, while the proposal was actually first brought up by then-Senator Richard G. Lugar a little over a year ago, more people are now pushing the notion that Kerry’s gaffe wasn’t one at all, including the Secretary of State himself. Kerry provided his description of what went down on Monday during his remarks at the House Armed Services Committee today (emphasis mine):

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 weapon – ideal way to take this weapon away from him.

This is how Kerry “challenged” Bashar al-Assad to hand over his chemical weapons:

Kerry continued that Russia “responded” to his challenge by saying they would come up with a proposal and that President Barack Obama would take a “hard look” at it if it was produced within a limited time. (Interestingly, the President hasn’t ruled it out.) Kerry also argued something we’re hearing over and over again now: this potentially good outcome would not have been possible without a credible threat of US military force.

After Kerry announced this US “challenge” in London during the question/answer period of a press briefing and Russia announced it had a proposal within a few hours, former United States Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Philip J. Crowley tweeted why this could be a life preserver for Obama:

Today, former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller repeated some of Crowley’s arguments while arguing that Kerry did not act as a “careless pawn”:

I’m told by a senior administration official that Kerry’s comment was not as offhanded as it seemed. According to this official, Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, first discussed the idea back in the spring. They returned to it more seriously last week, and Putin and Obama talked about it in at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg. The official said the administration sees the danger that the Russians or the U.N. will make it a delaying tactic, but that “in Kerry’s mind and in the President’s mind, it can be a win-win:” either you disarm Syria of its chemical weapons quickly and verifiably, or by exhausting a credible diplomatic option you win support for tougher measures against the Assad regime.

Of course, that still doesn’t explain why this alleged US challenge was presented only after Kerry was prompted with a question from a CBS reporter and why the State Department initially categorically denied that Kerry had made a proposal. Here’s a reminder of yesterday’s Daily Press Briefing with Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf (emphasis mine):

QUESTION: — did not make this statement until after he found about what the Secretary had said.

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm. But the Secretary was not making a proposal. The Secretary was making a —

QUESTION: How is that? Go ahead.

MS. HARF: Thank you. The Secretary was making a rhetorical statement and you read the whole quote, which I actually appreciate you doing. Look, he’s not about to do this. That was – that’s what the —

*Update: Al-Monitor also reports that this proposal was in the making before Kerry’s comments on Monday. It still seems like Kerry at least jumped the gun, which is understandable, considering that he has probably been going on less than 3 hours of sleep. In any case, here’s why all of this could unfortunately be going nowhere.

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.


One Comment

  1. Kerry, “That’s right, an arms deal,…yeah, that’s it,…that’s the ticket.”

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