WASHINGTON – While making a case for military strikes in Syria, Secretary of State John F. Kerry became an inadvertent peacemaker this week, and highlighted the risks and rewards of a chief diplomat who loves to talk but does not love the talking point.
Kerry’s seemingly stray remark Monday about a way to avoid U.S. military action became an international disarmament proposal on Tuesday, when President Obama agreed to seek consensus at the United Nations Security Council to place Syria’s chemical weapons under the control of international monitors.
Kerry’s candid remark came after months of back-channel discussions with Russia about securing Syria’s chemical arsenal.
No one, least of all Kerry, expected it to happen when he suggested at a London news conference that Syrian President Bashar Assad could head off cruise-missile strikes by giving up his stockpile of chemical weapons.
Kerry could be prone to make the occasional unscripted remark, and “sometimes, when I do, I get in trouble,” he explained to Congress on Tuesday. His rhetorical style can soar and crash-land in a single, run-on sentence. With three decades in the Senate and a presidential run behind him, he also is a natural debater who doesn’t shrink from a fight, or a question.
He could have dodged the subject of averting strikes Monday, and few if any observers probably would have noticed. But with recent, largely theoretical discussions about securing the stockpile in mind, Kerry plunged ahead and gave a response that was far newsier than he intended.
“He shies away from pre-cooked announcements,” State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said. Indeed, travel with Kerry can feel very seat-of-the-pants. Itineraries are subject to change as ad hoc meetings run deep into the night.
Kerry has tackled what seems like every major foreign policy problem at once since taking office in February. But his particular focus has been reviving peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and it is by tackling that seemingly intractable conflict that Kerry has set out to be measured.
Syria has also consumed a great deal of Kerry’s time, with much of his efforts spent lowering expectations among Syrian rebels and some U.S. partners that Obama would sanction any U.S. military intervention in the country’s grinding civil war.
Kerry has made little secret of his own preference for stronger U.S. action, and when the Syrian regime allegedly attacked civilians with poison gas last month, he became the leading spokesman for a tough response.
The Russian intervention that occurred after Kerry’s remarks was more unexpected than unwelcome. And Tuesday, Kerry and others rushed to claim advantage.
Assad and his Russian backers would never have entertained a concession on Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal if the threat of a U.S. attack was not real, Kerry argued.