The Many Wars of John Kerry

Pete Souza

White House photo by Pete Souza

John Kerry finds himself in a familiar position or two on the issue of Syria.

As the Obama administration continues to make its push for a military strike in Syria, a familiar face has emerged at the center of this global diplomatic effort: Secretary of State John Kerry, one-time Democratic presidential candidate, long-time U.S. Senator for Massachusetts, and part-time windsurfer.  No one has been logging more frequent flier miles or hours on camera than Kerry in this push to convince global allies and the American public that Assad’s misdeeds must be punished through military strength.

This is hardly the first time that Kerry has found himself at the center of the debate over a controversial war.  In fact, there are few people who could have been more ironic spokespersons for a Syrian assault than our current Secretary of State.

John Kerry’s first experience with war came – as anyone who paid attention during the 2004 presidential election campaign is well aware – in the jungles of Vietnam.  As a junior at Yale University, Kerry had already made his opposition to the war known in a March 1965 speech that won him a prize as best orator.

“It is the specter of Western imperialism that causes more fear among Africans and Asians than communism, and thus it is self-defeating,” the future senator told his audience.  “We have grossly overextended ourselves in areas where we have no vital primary interest.”  He echoed the same sentiment in a Class Day speech the following year.

Kerry served on active duty in the U.S. Navy from August 1966 to January 1970, spending a significant portion of that time in Vietnam.  His experiences there have been well-documented and do not need to be discussed any further here, but suffice it to say that Kerry’s time there only served to convince him even further that U.S. policy in region was wrong-headed.

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U.S. government photo of Kerry testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971. He would become chairman of the same committee in 2009.

On April 22, 1971, John Kerry testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about his experiences in the war.  By that point, Kerry was a prominent member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and his testimony that day was memorable for his intense criticism of U.S. military actions.  The following day, he joined a protest in which war veterans threw military medals they had received over a fence by the U.S. Capitol Building.  Just before tossing the decorations, Kerry reportedly said, “There is no violent reason for this; I’m doing this for peace and justice and to try to help this country wake up once and for all.”

That was several wars ago, and by the time Kerry ran for president in 2004, it was the one in Iraq that was getting most public attention.  Still, Kerry’s Vietnam experience became a central issue.  In his acceptance speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the candidate opened with the words, “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty,” a clear reference to his military service.  Soon, the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was on air with commercials calling into question the dignity of Kerry’s service and essentially labeling him as a traitor.  The attacks were so fierce (and arguably so effective) that they gave rise to a new political term: “swiftboating”.

Even as Kerry attempted to defend himself against the Vietnam criticisms, he was also dogged by questions about his stance on the Iraq War, which was growing worse by the day.  As a member of the U.S. Senate, John Kerry had voted to authorize the use of force against Saddam Hussein’s regime, but by the time he announced his run for president, he was trying desperately to distance himself from the Iraq mess.  He said the following during an interview with the Early Show on CBS.

I voted to do the responsible thing for America which was to have a threat of force to hold Saddam Hussein accountable and to go the United Nations…But the right thing to do was also to build up a coalition with other countries, to show the diplomatic skill to build that coalition, to show the patience to build the legitimacy and consent of the world for what you are doing and not to rush to war; to do so with a plan for winning the peace. And I warned the president, last January. I said, ‘Mr. President, do not rush to war, take the time to build the coalition, because it’s not winning the war that’s hard, it’s winning the peace that’s hard.’

Not everyone was buying Kerry’s explanation.  In the months leading up to the 2004 Iowa caucuses, it was the lesser-known Howard Dean who was able to gain the most Democratic supporters: he had opposed the war from the beginning.  While Kerry was eventually able to beat out Dean and the other challengers for the Democratic nomination, he was always in a tough spot when it came to criticizing the Bush administration’s Iraq policy.

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Kerry attempts to charm a young voter on the campaign trail in 2004. Photo by Alec Jacobson

The Bush campaign received a gift on March 16, 2004, when John Kerry made an appearance at Marshall University.  He was asked why he had voted against an $87 billion supplemental appropriations bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Trying to explain that he had voted for an earlier version of the bill before rejecting the final version, Kerry told the audience, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”  This was undoubtedly one of the happiest moments in Karl Rove’s life, as the Republicans would go on to shred Kerry throughout the campaign for being a “flip flopper”, using this quote as exhibit A.

Kerry would go on to lose in the general election that November, but as luck would have it, his presidential campaign was not a total loss.  At the Democratic convention earlier that year, Kerry was able to select who he wanted to be a keynote speaker, and he chose an up-and-coming state senator from Illinois who was running to fill an open U.S. Senate seat.  It was rare for such a minor party figure to receive a prime speaking slot, but Kerry undoubtedly sensed that the charisma of this speaker would give both of their campaigns momentum.  You probably already know who I’m talking about: Barack Obama.

While John Kerry may not have shown much foresight when it came to Iraq, he did a remarkable job of playing the long game when it came to Obama.  The keynote speech was a huge hit.  Obama proclaimed, “John Kerry believes that in a dangerous world, war must be an option sometimes, but it should never be the first option.”  Then there was this rather interesting tidbit.

When we send our young men and women into harm’s way, we have a solemn obligation not to fudge the numbers or shade the truth about why they are going, to care for their families while they’re gone, to tend to the soldiers upon their return and to never, ever go to war without enough troops to win the war, secure the peace and earn the respect of the world.

On the strength of the publicity gained from this speech (and the weakness of Republican candidate Alan Keyes, who was drafted in late in the race), Obama cruised to a landslide victory that November and joined Kerry in the U.S. Senate.  Serving together on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the two men remained close, and when Obama made a presidential run of his own in 2008, Kerry was there to lend support.  He officially endorsed Obama just after Hillary Clinton’s victory in the New Hampshire primary, declaring that the Illinois senator had “the greatest potential to lead a transformation, not just a transition.”

This endorsement was politically risky for Kerry, as Obama’s eventual victory over Clinton in the Democratic primary contest was by no means assured.  This act of support at such a crucial moment undoubtedly endeared Kerry to the younger man, and as politicians are always looking for ways to promote themselves, I’m sure a future cabinet position (or even a VP slot) was part of the calculation that Kerry made before deciding on this endorsement.

However, it was Hillary Clinton who ended up being the deciding factor when Obama was assembling his administration.  The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden, was selected as Obama’s running mate, which opened up the chairmanship for Kerry.  Obama then needed somewhere to put Clinton, and it ended up being the State Dept.  Likely due to concerns about his own national security credentials with two wars still ongoing, Obama decided to keep the moderate Republican Robert Gates in his position as Secretary of Defense, which left Kerry without any Cabinet positions that would have been good enough to warrant leaving his plum job in the Senate.

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Kerry celebrates with his family after being ceremonially sworn in as Secretary of State. Official State Department photo

So it was that Kerry waited patiently for Hillary to move out.  It was widely reported that he was eyeing the Secretary of State job.  After the Republican Party decided to make Susan Rice its public enemy #1 over the Benghazi controversy, forcing her to withdraw herself from consideration, Kerry became the obvious choice for President Obama.  While Kerry would claim that Obama had chosen him a week before Rice withdrew, we may never know the truth of what went on behind the scenes.

When it came time for the Obama administration to make its case for bombing Syria, it turned to Secretary Kerry to make the case.  In one sense, this makes perfect sense: after all, the Bush administration sent out Colin Powell when they needed someone to convince the world about the threat in Iraq.  I suppose that it looks better for the chief diplomat to be the one urging a military strike, not the warmongers at the Department of Defense.

(DISCLAIMER: I am only speaking ironically.  As a resident of Arlington, VA, I naturally love the entire military industrial complex and believe our military to be the greatest force for peace on earth.  Please don’t send the drones after me!)

However, as Kerry continues to give interview after interview on the topic, he once again finds himself at the center of a military controversy, trying to convince the American people that his judgment is solid.  Multiple journalists have pressed Kerry on the issue of what evidence the U.S. has that the Assad regime truly did use chemical weapons against civilians.  Some have even compared the situation to the lead-up to the war in Iraq.  Kerry reacted strongly against that notion in an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes.

I think a lot of Americans, all of your listeners, a lot of people in the country are sitting there and saying oh, my gosh, this is going to be Iraq, this is going to be Afghanistan.  Here we go again. I know this.  I’ve heard it. And the answer is no, profoundly no.  You know, Senator Chuck Hagel, when he was senator, Senator Chuck Hagel, now secretary of Defense, and when I was a senator, we opposed the president’s decision to go into Iraq, but we know full well how that evidence was used to persuade all of us that authority ought to be given. I can guarantee you, I’m not imprisoned by my memories of or experience in Vietnam, I’m informed by it.  And I’m not imprisoned by my memory of how that evidence was used, I’m informed by it.  And so is Chuck Hagel.

Aside from the fact that these comments seem to suggest a level of opposition to a possible Iraq War that Kerry did not show at the time (though he did publish this essay in the New York Times), they seem to perfectly sum up the way war has impacted Kerry’s career from start to finish.  And just as Kerry has struggled to explain statements made about previous wars, he now has to deal with a somewhat unfortunate comment made about Syria.

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Kerry at a press conference with his British counterpart yesterday. Official State Department photo

During a joint press conference yesterday with UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, CBS’s Margaret Brennan asked Kerry, “Is there anything at this point that his government could do or offer that would stop an attack?”  This certainly seemed like a reasonable question, and Kerry’s problem came when he chose to do something that politicians are never supposed to do: he answered it.

“Sure,” Kerry replied.  “He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”  Oh, no?

Within hours, Russia had made a proposal to the Syrian government to put that country’s chemical weapons under international control.  Syrian Foreign Minister Wallid Moalem responded enthusiastically.  “I declare that the Syrian Arab Republic welcomes Russia’s initiative, on the basis that the Syrian leadership cares about the lives of our citizens and the security in our country,” he told reporters. “We are also confident in the wisdom of the Russian government, which is trying to prevent an American aggression against our people.”

This was a big problem for the Obama administration.  Why?  Because they naturally doubt the authenticity of anything the Assad regime says, and at this point, not taking any military action almost appears to be letting Assad off the hook for a chemical attack.  Sensing the danger, State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf was sent out to conduct some damage control.  The first question at her afternoon press briefing: Was Secretary Kerry really serious when he said that?

“What Secretary Kerry said, as Jen said, I believe, from the road, was that he was speaking rhetorically about a situation we thought had very low probability of happening,” Harf explained.  “Everything that Assad has done over the past two years and before has been to refuse to put his chemical weapons under international control. He hasn’t declared them; we’ve repeatedly called on him to do so. And he’s ignored prohibitions against them.”  Nevertheless, she indicated that the U.S. would consider the Russian proposal, taking care to be extremely skeptical the whole time.

Unfortunately, that was not the end of the issue for the White House.  President Obama was already scheduled to conduct on-camera interviews with reporters from all the major networks that afternoon.  He already had a hard task ahead of him to convince Americans to get on board for another war in the Middle East, however big or small.  Now he had Kerry’s remarks to deal with as well.

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President Obama attempts to explain his administration’s position on Syria to the media yesterday. White House photo by Pete Souza

CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer asked the president if the Russian/Syrian proposal was actually a viable option.  Obama acknowledged, “It’s certainly a positive development when the Russians and Syrians both make gestures towards dealing with these chemical weapons.”  When it came to whether or not the plan could remove the need for U.S. military action, the president simply said, “It’s possible if it’s real.”

This morning, Kerry declared that the possibility of a strike against the Assad regime “absolutely should not be off the table” despite new developments.  However, he was also forced to admit, “The Senate has made a decision to hold off to see if there are any legs in this Russia proposal,” referring to a delayed procedural vote meant to take place on Wednesday.  Thus, the administration’s push for congressional approval has been somewhat sabotaged by Kerry’s comments.  Then again, he may have accidentally created a breakthrough that will prevent a needless war: it all depends on your point of view.

For John Kerry, war seems to be as inevitable as death and taxes are for the rest of us.  He constantly finds himself in situations where he must make an argument about military action, then possibly unmake it a few years later.  Are we right to doubt him on the issue of Syria?  Perhaps, but not simply because he is John Kerry.  Tonight, it will be the president trying to make the case to a skeptical public and equally skeptical Congress.  I bet that, for once, Kerry will be happy to sit back and watch.