Kerry Gets Testy During Syria ‘Red Line’ Discussion: ‘Don’t Put Words in My Mouth’

By Patrick Goodenough | May 28, 2014 | 8:41 PM EDT

Secretary of State John Kerry delivers the Class Day address at Yale University, Sunday, May 18, 2014, in New Haven, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

( – Secretary of State John Kerry got testy with an interviewer Wednesday while discussing the relative merits of the agreement struck last fall to remove the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons, and the punitive military strikes which President Obama had threatened but then did not carry out.

The exchange centered on arguably the administration’s most frequently criticized foreign policy episode – a chemical weapons “red line” laid down by the president in mid-2012, then crossed with impunity a year later when President Bashar Assad’s regime killed more than 1,400 people in a chemical attack near Damascus.

Obama threatened limited military strikes – with Kerry himself arguing passionately in favor of such action – but then backed away after Russia proposed a deal to remove and destroy the chemical stockpile instead.

Appearing on CNN’s New Day, Kerry spent more than a minute explaining why in his view the chemical weapons deal delivered a better outcome than the threatened-but-never-carried-out military action would have.

“If we had struck with our military for a one or two-day operation in Syria, yes, it would have had an impact for a day or two, but every single one of the chemical weapons that were terrorizing the people of Syria would have still been in Assad’s hands,” he said. “Instead, we struck an agreement which has now succeeded in removing 92 percent of all of those weapons.”

But when interviewer Chris Cuomo then interpreted that as him suggesting the military action would have been “ill-advised,” Kerry pounced.

“Chris, please don’t – please don’t make up language. I did not say ill-advised,” he said. “I said it would have done damage, but only a certain amount. It would not have removed the weapons. So don’t put words in my mouth. I said it would not have accomplished the task of removing all of the weapons.”

'People simply want to refuse to accept that we’re better off'

Kerry went on to give his account of the way the situation played out.

Obama had publicly declared that he was prepared to take military action, he said, but “Congress was not prepared to support it.”

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze, File)

“And before we even got to the final vote in Congress, I reached an agreement in Geneva with the Russians and [Foreign Minister] Sergei Lavrov, and we agreed to remove all of the weapons,” he added.

“So instead of a partial solution, we’re getting a whole solution to the problem of chemical weapons. It’s remarkable to me that people simply want to refuse to accept that we’re better off getting all of the weapons out, than striking for one or two days and doing damage to some of them.”

At the time of these events Moscow was searching for a way to avert military strikes against its ally in Damascus, when Kerry in an apparently unscripted comment raised the possibility that Assad could avoid the planned punishment if he agreed to surrender his chemical weapons stockpile.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Syrian President Bashar Assad. Moscow is a longstanding Assad ally. (Photo: Syrian Arab News Agency)

Although the State Department afterwards described Kerry’s comment as “rhetorical and hypothetical” rather than a serious proposal, Russia seized the opportunity and prodded Assad to agree to give up the weapons. At the same time, President Vladimir Putin made clear that the initiative would only be feasible if the U.S. and allies “tell us that they’re giving up their plan to use force against Syria.”

The decision to shelve the military strikes drew strong criticism in quarters that had hoped such action would speed up Assad’s downfall.

“The current charade of international control over Bashar’s chemical arsenal would be funny if it were not so blatantly perfidious, and designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to back down, but also to help Assad to butcher his people,” influential Saudi prince Turki al-Faisal said in a biting speech in Washington in October.

Rather than help to force his departure, the Russian-mediated agreement was seen by many to have bolstered Assad although the administration maintains that the deal was a worthwhile and significant achievement.

(Last February Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a congressional committee that Assad “is actually in a strengthened position than when we discussed this last year by virtue of his agreement to remove the chemical weapons.” Kerry disputed that.)

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates in an interview earlier this month called Obama’s handling of the Syria crisis “one of the sad stories of the president’s foreign policy.”

“Last fall was a real low point, where we went in the space of a week from saying, ‘Assad must go,’ to ‘Assad must stay,’ in order to fulfill the agreement sponsored by Putin to get rid of the chemical weapons that Assad had used against his own people,” he said.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow