It sure sounded like a gaffe when, on Monday morning Secretary of State John Kerry threw out a proposal to avert airstrikes against Syria, but by this afternoon, the line had been embraced by Russia, Syria, and even his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, who treated it as a serious option that had been "suggested" by Kerry.
Speaking in London, Kerry said that if Syrian President Bashar al Assad were to "turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week," there would be no U.S. attack. It was an off-message moment for the Obama Administration's point man on building support for strikes, and Russia quickly embraced the line as sound policy, Syria agreed to the idea. White House officials spent several hours downplaying Kerry's comment, calling it a "hypothetical," a "rhetorical" comment — an anonymous American official even told CNN it was a "major goof." And it sure looked like a comment tossed off without much thought — in the GIF at right, you can see Kerry throw up his hands at the idea. "But he isn't about to do it," Kerry said of Assad handing over all his chemical weapons, "and it can't be done, obviously."
But Russia treated it like a serious proposal. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said his country would work "immediately" to convince Syria to hand over his large chemical weapons arsenal. Then Syria foreign minister Walid al Moualem said he "welcomes Russia's proposal." Suddenly the goof was serious. Then deputy national security adviser Tony Blinkin said "We're going to take a hard look at this," in a press conference with reporters. "We'll talk to the Russians about it."
Then Clinton played it off in a speech that was originally supposed to be about wildlife trafficking. "Now, if the regime immediately surrendered its stockpiles to international control as was suggested by Secretary Kerry and the Russians, that would be an important step," Clinton said. "But this cannot be another excuse for delay or obstruction. And Russia has to support the international community's efforts sincerely, or be held to account." That's not a rejection of Kerry's comment as a goof — that's a demand that Russia take it extremely seriously! Syria would have never been open to this proposal if it weren't for the threat of military strikes, Clinton said.
It is very important to note that this discussion that has taken hold today about potential international control over Syria's stockpiles, only could take place in the context of a credible military threat by the United States to keep pressure on the Syrian government as well as those supporting Syria, like Russia.
Clinton then turned to talking about elephants and other endangered animals.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he might ask the U.N. security council to demand Syria move its chemical weapons stockpile so it can be safely destroyed.
For Armando Iannucci fans, the day's events might call to mind his movie In the Loop in which the British minister for international development, Simon Foster, screws up his talking point, telling reporters that war in the Middle East is "unforeseeable." This is a huge screw up, because he was supposed to sound neither pro- nor anti-war. Later, when ambushed by TV reporters, Foster makes up for it by saying, "What I'm saying is, that to walk the road of peace, sometimes we need to be ready to climb the mountain of conflict." American officials jump to use him to justify war in Iraq.
Kerry just did the opposite. His initial gaffe was too warlike — he suggested in a hearing last week floated the idea of "boots on the ground" in Syria in certain conditions, then later explained that he was just "thinking out loud." On Monday, he overcorrected, seemingly accidentally offering a path for peace, which the rest of the world has seized on.
Of course, it's possible there is more to American foreign policy and life-or-death, war-and-peace decisions than fortunate gaffes.
Correction: This post originally misquoted Clinton. She said the chemical weapons option was "suggested" by Kerry, not that it was "the Kerry proposal."