Can’t Anyone Here Play This Game?

Obama administration is for military action and diplomacy – at the same time

Obama cabinet officials, 2013 / AP
• September 9, 2013 5:06 pm


Having insisted for the past two weeks that military strikes are the only appropriate response to the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons against its own people, the Obama administration muddled its message today by entertaining the possibility of a non-military solution to the crisis.

Asked at a press conference in London this morning whether there was anything Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad could do to avert a U.S. attack, Secretary of State John Kerry said "he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week."

Russia and Syria seized on the remark and endorsed Kerry's offer in the hopes of complicating the administration's push for congressional approval of military force. Yet the Obama administration appeared to help Russia undermine its own call for military action, with some senior officials endorsing Kerry's proposal and others insisting that military strikes remain the only appropriate course of action.

At today's briefing, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf waved off the Kerry comment by saying it was "rhetorical and hypothetical" and that Kerry "didn’t put it out there as a proposal." Yet she didn’t close the door completely on the idea, saying that "clearly we think it would be good if we could get these weapons under international lock and key."

Moments later, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also tepidly endorsed Kerry's extemporaneous proposal, saying "if the [Syrian] regime immediately surrendered its stockpiles to international control as was suggested by Secretary Kerry and the Russians, that would be an important step."

Yet National Security Adviser Susan Rice's speech today ruled out the possibility of a diplomatic solution to the crisis, calling not for the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles but for U.S. military strikes. "In response to Bashar al-Assad’s barbaric use of chemical weapons," she said, "President Obama … has decided that it is in the national security interest of the United States to conduct limited military strikes against the Syrian regime." Rice’s speech made an extensive case for such strikes as the only appropriate course of action, detailing Russia’s repeated obstruction of diplomatic initiatives at the United Nations and other international bodies and arguing that attacking Syria is in American’s national security interest.

Like Rice, on Friday another senior administration official also delivered a speech arguing that military action is the only appropriate response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power declared, "the president [has] concluded that a limited military strike is the only way to prevent Assad from employing chemical weapons as if they are a conventional weapon of war."

Yet Tony Blinken, deputy national security adviser to President Obama, contradicted both Rice and Power today, saying the administration may not actually have decided that military strikes are the only option. He pledged that the administration would "take a hard look" at the Kerry proposal and "talk to the Russians about it."

At press time, it appears the Obama administration is simultaneously pursuing two different courses of action: a diplomatic initiative with Russia that would bring Syria’s chemical weapons under international control and a push in the U.S. Congress premised on the futility of non-military responses to the Syria crisis.