The PJ Tatler

Did John Kerry Admit that Obama's Syria Policy is 'Collapsing'?

Jeffrey Goldberg reports that two “prominent Republican senators” say that Secretary of State John Kerry told them that President Obama’s Syria policy is “collapsing.” According to the senators, Kerry made the remark to a bipartisan congressional delegation.

Kerry is said to have made these blunt assertions Sunday morning behind the closed doors of a cramped meeting room in the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich, as the 50th annual Munich Security Conference was coming to a close in a ballroom two floors below. A day earlier, Kerry, in a joint appearance with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on the ballroom stage, gave an uncompromising defense of the Obama administration’s level of foreign engagement: saying that, “I can’t think of a place in the world where we’re retreating.”

Kerry’s presentation to the congressional delegation suggests that, at least in the case of Syria, he believes the U.S. could be doing much more. His enthusiasm for engagement and dissatisfaction with current policy, is in one sense no surprise: Kerry has consistently been the most prominent advocate inside the administration of a more assertive American role in Syria. Who could forget his late August speech, overflowing with Churchillian outrage, in which he promised that the U.S. would hold the Assad regime accountable for the “moral obscenity” of chemical weapons attacks? (This promise was put on hold after Obama declined to strike Syria, and after the Russians negotiated the so-far mainly theoretical surrender of the regime’s stockpile of chemical weapons.)

“Theoretical surrender” is a nice phrase. It’s not the sort of thing a Douglas MacArthur would have accepted.

According to participants in the meeting, Kerry spent a good deal of time sounding out the members about their constituents’ tolerance for greater engagement in Syria. He was told, almost uniformly, that there is little appetite for deeper involvement at home. One congressman, Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, told Kerry that his August speech on the need to confront Assad was powerful, but that the president subsequently “dropped the ball.”

Kerry’s Sunday briefing was meant to be private, but the Senate’s two most prominent Syria hawks, Republicans John McCain — the leader of the U.S. delegation to the security conference — and Lindsey Graham provided a readout of the meeting to three journalists who flew with them on a delegation plane back to Washington: Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of the Washington Post;Josh Rogin, the Daily Beast’s national security reporter; and me.

According to Graham, Kerry acknowledged that the al Qaeda threat in Syria is “getting out of hand” and that Syria is “slow rolling” the aforementioned theoretical surrender of its chemical weapons. So, the situation hasn’t really changed all that much since last fall, when Kerry said that inaction would be unacceptable. Graham says that Kerry talked about forming a rebel coalition against both al Qaeda and Assad. How that would actually work on the ground is anyone’s guess.

Democrats and the State Department are downplaying Kerry’s remarks, with the State Department going Godwin for good measure.

The impotence of the West, as evidenced by the failure of Geneva II talks, and by continued reports of mass murder committed by Assad’s forces, prompted former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter to publicly compare the situation of Syrian citizens today to that of Jews in World War II Europe. “In the United States, we often ask, ‘Why didn’t Roosevelt bomb the trains?’ We aren’t very different,” she said.

Who are the analog of Europe’s Jews in today’s Syria?

The White House is in denial mode.

What’s going on here? There’s little doubt that Obama’s Syria policy is in disarry. That situation isn’t helped by the likes of McCain and Graham, both of whom want direct military intervention. McCain even hired the disgraced pro-intervention activist Elizabeth O’Bagy.

The “impotence of the West” did not have to be. Obama did not have to empower the Russians, reducing American influence, any more than he had to distance US policy from Israel’s or set up a weak deal with Iran, or side with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. If the West is impotent in Syria, it may be by design.