WASHINGTON -- Even as he beseeches former colleagues in Congress to vote for President Barack Obama’s plan to bomb Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear in an interview with The Huffington Post that he thinks the president has the right to order air strikes in the face of congressional disapproval.
If that scenario were to materialize -- a bombing campaign after a "no" vote -- the result would almost certainly be an impeachment drive in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Citing their role as commander-in-chief, U.S. presidents have assumed ever-greater latitude in ordering apparent acts of war without obtaining Congress’ permission, as the letter of the Constitution requires. Firing cruise missiles and/or dropping bombs on the military infrastructure of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime would be an “act of war,” according to Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- especially since the United States would not be enforcing a United Nations-sanctioned enforcement mission.
At first, as evidence mounted that Assad had used chemical weapons on his own people in the midst of a two-year-old civil war, Obama tentatively decided to follow his recent predecessors and take action on his own, without seeking support in a congressional vote. Then last week the president surprised his own aides (including Kerry) and changed his mind, apparently because he lacked much international support and because he wanted to spread the domestic political risk.
But even though Obama is now seeking Congress’ support, Kerry insisted that the president is not bound by law to stand down should his plan be rejected.
Hadn’t the president in essence ceded that leeway by coming to Congress? I asked the secretary of state.
The answer, he said, was no.
“Constitutionally, every president, Republican and Democrat alike, has always reserved to the presidency, to the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the right to make a decision with respect to American security,” Kerry said during an interview in his State Department reception room on Thursday.
“Bill Clinton went to Kosovo over the objections of many people and saved lives and managed to make peace because he did something that was critical at the time. Many presidents have done that. Reagan did it. Bush did it. A lot of presidents have made a decision that they have to protect the nation.
“Now. I can’t tell you what judgment the president will make if, in three weeks, Bashar Assad uses chemical weapons again. But the president reserves the right in the presidency to respond as appropriate to protect the security of our nation.”
The constitutional question aside, wouldn’t the president risk a political firestorm if he were to move ahead in the face of a “no” vote, should one come to pass?
“I am not going to speculate about it because I hope Congress will exercise its best judgment,” Kerry said, by supporting the president's “unbelievably limited and tailored” plan.
“Tailored” though the plan may be, Kerry offered a rather murky, “trust us” explanation for how the Obama administration could obliterate Assad’s chemical weapons delivery systems without risking dispersal of the weapons themselves into even worse hands.
How can it be done? Kerry was asked.
“By being very thoughtful in your selection of what you do,” he replied, “so that you do not undo his ability to be able to maintain and guard the actual stockpiles. Stockpiles are spread out in various parts of the country.
“And we know where they are. And the United States is obviously going to be very careful not to do something that makes matters worse. You know, we’ve sat around and talked through all of those issues.”
During a 24-minute interview, Kerry reiterated the themes and points he has been pressing, with limited success, in public and behind closed doors in Congress.
The essence: that evidence of Assad’s perfidious use of chemical weapons is clear “beyond a reasonable doubt”; that the mission to punish him and “degrade” his chemical weapons capability is narrowly targeted; that the material will not fall into the wrong hands; that there is a greater risk of the spread of such weapons if the U.S. does not act; that there is a critical mass of trustworthy opposition forces such that al-Qaeda would not take over if Assad were forced out; that even though the U.S. wants Assad gone, the U.S. will not put ground troops in Syria for any purpose.
Kerry argued that his own history as an anti-war Vietnam War veteran has given him a deep skepticism of military intelligence and military solutions, which, in his view, makes him a more credible advocate now.
But at times during the interview, the distant echo of Vietnam-era rationales and rationalizations -- domino theories, fears of being seen as a weak “paper tiger,” assurances that we would avoid local civil wars and their military “quagmires” -- was deafening.
Still, the secretary of state did his best to make the case.
Here is the full transcript:
Russian President Vladimir Putin said recently that al-Qaeda is the main "military echelon" of the opposition in Syria. Was he wrong?
Was he wrong about that? Yeah. He’s dead wrong. Are they engaged? Yes. Are they fighting on the ground? Yes. But the opposition has far more people on the ground -- far more -- than all the “bad guy” groups put together. There are about 11 “bad guy” groups, of which al-Nusra is one. You’ve got al-Qaeda in Iraq. You’ve got [Jund] al-Sham. You’ve got a group of them that are very bad actors. But the vast majority of the opposition -- which is not getting any assistance through any of the other people, which is separate and separated -- they are not plotting with them, they are not planning with them, there is no joint command with them.
You said that only 15 to 25 percent of the opposition are "bad guys." Where did you get that figure?
It comes from our intel community. It comes from Ambassador Robert Ford, who is deeply engaged and very knowledgeable about it. It comes from our own people on the ground.
But the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency recently expressed concern that the most radical elements could take over in Syria, and some stories of opposition brutality support that view.
I agree with that. We are all concerned about that. That is a legitimate concern. It is one of the concerns, actually, where Russia and the United States have something in common. We share a concern about the increase of the radicals. My concern is that if we don’t hold Saddam -- I mean Bashar al-Assad ...
It’s an understandable Freudian slip.
No, no, no. If we don’t hold Bashar al-Assad responsible for the use of chemical weapons; if the United States doesn’t step up, with allies, in order to assert this international norm with respect to the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons; if we don’t step up to do that, I believe what will happen is that the United States will lose the current influence that we have -- which has helped the moderate opposition to separate and make sure that assistance is not going to the bad guys and that they are operating independently of them. What I fear is that the support that has been directed appropriately, in the way that it is now, will stop. They will stop listening. They won’t feel that the United States needs to be listened to. Any leverage we have for behavior will be gone. And you will see vast amounts of money start pouring in to the worst actors.
Isn't it equally plausible that the one thing that could give credibility, clout and forward momentum to the most radical elements would be if the U.S. gets involved militarily?
I’ll tell you why I don’t believe that. I don’t believe that because of a couple of things. Number one, the world condemns the use of chemical weapons, including Iran and Russia, both of whom are supporting Assad. And I believe that they, in fact, will be limited in their ability to mobilize people because the evidence will become more clear as we go through the debate, because we will not act alone, we will act in concert with other countries. Already 80 countries have condemned the use of chemical weapons, and 34 countries have said that if it is proven the Assad regime did this, action should be taken. Now there may be different kinds of action …
Do you include Russia in that number?
Russia actually has said that they wouldn’t rule out taking action if it were proven, but I do not count them in that number. Putin actually said something similar the other day. And they are in double digits now, the number of countries that are specifically prepared to take action with the United States -- that’s right now. I believe that will grow as more evidence emerges.
You talk to Putin. You are close to Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister. What is your answer to Putin when he calls you a liar on the global stage?
Well, Lavrov talked to me today [Thursday] and told me very clearly Putin had a -- this is what Lavrov said -- that apparently there was some translation that was not correct and that he understands ... Look things happen in this process, and I am not going to get personal about it.
Did they call you or did you call them?
We had a call that was scheduled and we are continuing to work on the question of a political settlement.
Did Lavrov apologize on behalf of Putin to you?
I don’t want to get into personal conversations. I am very comfortable we need to move on to bigger issues.
The fact is, he said your information was wrong and you knew it.
Well, that is incorrect. There are 18 different references in my testimony yesterday to the fact that al-Qaeda is on the ground and operating and that they are bad guys and that part of our concern is their presence there. I don’t want to dwell on that.
This is what your readers and listeners and others need to understand.
I am someone who is deeply informed by war. Personally, having fought in one I thought was a mistake, that was bad decision-making, where people didn’t share all the truth. I know about another war, based on evidence that was presented in the Senate, and it was faulty evidence, and then a war took place. And as an official now, in a position to make these choices and to advise a president with respect to these choices, both [Defense] Secretary [Chuck] Hagel and I are absolutely deeply committed to respecting the history we have lived. We are not going to put in front of the American people evidence that has not been properly scrubbed and vetted, that we don’t trust and believe. This evidence, we believe, is overwhelming beyond a reasonable doubt, that Bashar al-Assad gassed his own people, that the regime ordered this, and that they are responsible for what happened.
If that is the case, why is there such widespread opposition to U.S. military action here and, according to our Huffington Post global survey, around the world?
Because a lot of people -- and I understand this and I am very sympathetic to it, it is not a small deal -- think of Iraq or they think of Afghanistan again, the longest war in our history. And people think, "Oh my God, we are getting into another war." And that’s the automatic reflex. People think the United States is going to unilaterally ... And I understand people who don’t trust our intelligence. How could I not, after Iraq? How could anybody not? So that’s why we have taken such pains to scrub the intelligence, to share it, to declassify, to put things out there, and we will do more.
Because I want people to understand from this interview and others that this is not Iraq, this will not be Iraq. This is not Afghanistan and will not be. This is not Libya and will not be. There is no similarity between any of those other things and what the president is asking Congress to permit him to do, which is to enforce the norm with respect to the prohibition on use of chemical weapons, to degrade Assad’s ability to use those weapons and send the message.
If we don’t, after all that has been said about the prohibition for almost 100 years; if the world hears the United States say, “This is unacceptable” -- and by the way, it’s not President Obama’s red line, it’s a global red line, it is the multilateral community that has drawn this line -- if we don’t enforce that, Assad will say to himself, “I am free to use all the gas I want.”
If that is so clear, where is the U.N., where is NATO, where is the Arab League?
The Arab League has condemned Assad for its use and issued a call to take action.
They called for action. They left it open for people to define it. But read between the lines. You have some countries -- Lebanon, Iraq – who don’t want to do it.
What about the idea that Saudi Arabia will financially support this?
A number of Arab countries are 100 percent prepared to be part of this action. There are Arab countries prepared to be part of this action if it has to take place.
Where is the U.N.? Why isn't the U.N. speaking on this?
Well, the United Nations will speak, can speak, but the U.N. has decided, in their mandate to their inspectors, that they will not assign culpability. So when the U.N. speaks, they will tell us what we know: that Assad used these materials. It was gas.
Yes, but why wouldn't you want to get a vote from the U.N. to support what the president is proposing to do?
We’ve already seen that Russia ... We tried to pass a simple condemnation of the use of gas, without any citing of who did it, and the Russians said no. The Russians have already vetoed the previous efforts to hold Assad accountable. So the point is, if we are going to have meaning here, we need to bring people together who are prepared to do that. Now I am all for the United Nations to do this if the Security Council is not going to veto it.
Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat who now holds your Massachusetts Senate seat, voted "present" on the president's plan. Your reaction?
I’ve talked to him, and he indicated to me that he wanted an opportunity to read the full classified report. And if that is what he needs in order to make a decision, I welcome it. And I will talk to him again.
I've talked to several senators and they asked me to assure the American people that we are not about to enter another military quagmire. But how can you give an ironclad assurance to the American people? Things happen in war. It's more complicated than a simple assurance.
It is not more complicated, because the president of the United States and all of his team are absolutely committed that what we are doing is enforcing the norm with respect to the non-use of chemical weapons.
But if we "degrade" the structure for controlling those weapons, how do we keep them from getting into the wrong hands without some kind of on-the-ground involvement?
Let me give you the reverse question. If we don’t send this message to Assad that this should not be used, and if we don’t strengthen the opposition over a period of time through the support that the world is giving to them, and the United States backs off of sending this message, there is a much greater likelihood that those weapons will fall into the hands of the bad guys and a much greater likelihood that you will have a lot more of them, because those are the people who are going to get the support to remove Assad.
But the specific question is, if you degrade the delivery systems, how do you keep those materials from getting into the wrong hands?
By being very thoughtful in your selection of what you do, so that you do not undo his ability to be able to maintain and guard the actual stockpiles. Stockpiles are spread out in various parts of the country. And we know where they are. And the United States is obviously going to be very careful not to do something that makes matters worse. You know, we’ve sat around and talked through all of those issues.
I want to assure everybody that we have no intention, nor will we, put American boots on the ground or get sucked into a quagmire. We are not -- I repeat -- we are not considering taking over or assuming responsibility for their civil war. They will fight their own civil war. We may help them, as we have decided to do in response to the earlier use of chemical weapons. The president ratcheted up the assistance to the opposition, and the opposition is there and prepared to fight. They haven’t asked us to come in and fight. They will fight. And we will not put American boots on the ground nor get directly involved in a civil war.
The resolution adopted by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee bars the use of forces "on the ground in Syria for the purpose of combat operations." Does that mean that they could be there for non-combat purposes?
There will be no American forces on the ground for any purpose.
Well, why does it say "for combat operations"?
I have no idea.
Another concern is that the resolution requires the administration to plan and put in place ways to "change the momentum on the battlefield." That sounds like military involvement.
That’s something that the Senate and the House have already supported. They are supporting providing assistance to the opposition.
That is where the quagmire concern is.
Let me be very clear: No. No American troops are going to get involved in fighting or combat or crossing into Syria. Nobody is envisioning that. That [language] talks about how you provide the support, whether it’s training or meals or medical equipment or radios or other things, which is being provided to the opposition. That everybody knows is happening. And that support is what he is talking about increasing, to increase their capacity to carry the fight themselves. There is no discussion whatsoever -- even [Senator] John McCain, he wants the prohibition against American troops. Nobody is talking about American troops. It’s critical for your readers and everyone else to understand that.
The instant people hear “military action in Syria,” they think, they think, "OK, here we go again. It’s Iraq." And what we have to make crystal clear to everybody is that nobody wants that and nobody is talking about allowing some back door or slide-in or slippery slope that gets you there. That will not happen.
But things happen in war. What if the Syrians retaliate? What if Hezbollah gets a hold of something?
Those are all threats that we face at the time we would have to face them. What if we don’t pass this and Hezbollah gets a hold of them? The president is going to have to face that decision. What happens if we don’t do this, and as a result Assad thinks he has impunity to use these weapons and he uses them in a month? And it is in a huge amount? Is everybody in America going to sit back and say, "Oh my God, we didn’t expect that"? Or who is responsible for that? Is America going to assume responsibility for stepping back, when this is something the world has fought to enforce for almost 100 years?
I ask everybody to go back and look at the images of what happened in World War I. And why people decided, 189 nations or so. We’re not going to let all that happen again. Well, it is happening again.
And if we don’t stand up and stop it, what happens to Israel in the future when Hezbollah has these weapons? What happens for Iran when they decide America is a paper tiger, that we are not going to stand up and defend our word? So they go ahead and build their nuclear weapon. And the world is in a greater clash. This is important to the continuum of the choices we face in foreign policy. Your word is critical. If you don’t stand up for the things you say are important -- like a multilateral international treaty with respect to the use of chemical weapons -- you are walking away from a global and critical responsibility.
Having chosen to ask Congress to support his plan to punish Assad, hasn't the president bound himself to follow Congress' decision, even if it's no?
Constitutionally, every president, Republican and Democrat alike, has always reserved to the presidency, to the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the right to make a decision with respect to American security.
Bill Clinton went to Kosovo over the objections of many people and saved lives and managed to make peace because he did something that was critical at the time Many presidents have done that. Reagan did it. Bush did it. A lot of presidents have made a decision that they have to protect the nation.
Now I can’t tell you what judgment the president will make if, in three weeks, Bashar Assad uses chemical weapons again. He reserves the right in the presidency to respond as appropriate to protect the security of our nation.
No matter how the Congress votes?
To protect the security of our nation, the president has the power to make the choice to protect our country.
If Congress votes this down and he does it anyway, don't you think an impeachment move in the House is certain?
Howard, I am not going to speculate about it because I hope Congress will exercise its best judgment to prevent the worst elements in Syria from even growing stronger. I hope the Congress will decide not to let Assad believe he has impunity in the use of these weapons. I hope the Congress will believe that upholding the credibility of our nation in the conduct of foreign affairs is important. I hope the Congress believes that this is a message that Iran needs to understand as they proceed, conceivably, to be developing nuclear weapons. I hope that they will also agree to uphold it with respect to others in the world, like Kim Jong Un in North Korea, who needs to know that America stands by its word. And for all the people in the world who depend on America as a reliable partner, this is a critical message. I hope Congress will recognize that the plan is appropriately and unbelievably limited and tailored in its scope so that it is not going to war -- it is a limited action to uphold the importance of degrading his capacity to use chemical weapons.
And I do not believe Assad will respond this time because he doesn’t want to invite Israel to retaliate against him. He doesn’t want to invite the United States to do that. I believe that this is a very important moment, and I hope that the Congress will do the right thing.