On last week's installment of NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," host Peter Sagal, wisecracking about the Syria news, said incredulously, "John Kerry has become interesting." It's true. Earlier this week, the secretary of state made an apparently scoffing remark about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's self-evident unwillingness to eliminate his stock of chemical weapons -- and thereby unleashed a chain of events which might lead to Assad doing just that, which in turn could save President Barack Obama's skin. Or produce a fiasco. Or nothing.
Kerry has, in fact, proved to be a vastly more entertaining secretary of state than anyone could reasonably have expected. His predecessor, Hillary Clinton, boasted how many miles she logged (and still likes to), but never appeared to actually accomplish anything. Kerry might not accomplish anything either, but he's sure trying, above all in regard to a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians, which he appears to believe in with much greater conviction than do the parties themselves. Also, unlike the supremely disciplined Clinton, Kerry sometimes loses his grip on his message, as when he recently reassured skeptical congressmen that the administration's planned strike on Syria would be "unbelievably small."
On Syria, Kerry seems to be trying to infuse a sense of moral passion not only into hostile or apathetic legislators but into his own very cautious colleagues. While White House officials were responding warily to news of the Aug. 21 chemical attack which led to the death of some 1,400 people, Kerry called it a "moral obscenity," which was exactly the right term. And in remarks in London he conjured up the memory of the Holocaust and Rwanda, which must serve, he admonished his listeners, as "lessons to us all today."
This is not the language on Syria we are accustomed to hearing from President Obama. Until his Tuesday speech, the president had been careful to emphasize America's national security interests in stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction rather than its moral obligations to prevent mass atrocities. What is much more to the point is that over the last two years Obama has resisted calls, including from his own advisors, to act forcibly to stop Assad's killing, and has thus chosen to mute whatever horror he might feel at the regime's atrocities. His national security advisor, Susan Rice, who has often spoken of the obligation to prevent atrocities, nevertheless agreed with him. You don't compare a situation to Rwanda if you want to convey the idea that acting is not in America's national interest.
Of course I understand perfectly well that Obama is facing an American public that wishes to hear no summons to action in the Middle East. He recognizes that if he can't demonstrate that acting in Syria advances national interests he has no chance of gaining support for airstrikes. The problem is, he can't; it's just not a convincing argument. The "values" argument for intervening in the Syrian conflict -- though hardly straightforward -- is a lot stronger. But we now live in an intellectual and political environment in which such claims are treated with derision.
When Obama somewhat reluctantly chose Kerry as his secretary of state, very few people -- me included -- expected to see the veteran senator go out on such a limb. He was, like Hillary Clinton, a professional politician who understands what the political marketplace will bear. He had spent decades patting the back and gripping the arm of Middle East autocrats. And, true to form, John Kerry blandly congratulated the generals who overthrew Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy for "restoring democracy" (though, to be fair, he became far more critical in the aftermath of their brutal assault on demonstrators). Until 2011, Kerry was the most prominent public figure in the United States calling for an end to the isolation of the Syrian regime.
I asked a number of friends and colleagues of Kerry how they made sense of this apparent contradiction. One State Department official told me, "I've been thinking about it for the last few days. There's a little bit of Holbrooke" -- Richard Holbrooke, the late, great American diplomat -- "in terms of wanting to be at the center of great events." Kerry, like Holbrooke a product of Vietnam and the Cold War, has the sense both of America's primacy in the world and of his own. The same sense of moral urgency prompts Kerry's quixotic quest for peace in the Middle East and his convictions on Syria. He supported military action in both Bosnia and Kosovo. "Kerry's an interventionist," says a long-time colleague. "He believes in the U.S. righting wrongs when we can." He also has a deeply ingrained comfort level with somber men in dark suits which occasionally blinds him to the demands of the rabble beyond the walls.