U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry may have finally tipped the Obama administration’s hand on Monday with a grave speech decrying reports of the deadly chemical weapons attack on Syrian rebels east of Damascus. The address seemed geared toward justifying military intervention in the two-year-old civil war, and in that sense recalled the nuanced defense of pre-emptive action delivered by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations ahead of the Iraq invasion in 2003. But rather than clarifying an “Obama doctrine” for foreign intervention, Kerry’s speech served to highlight the lack of any coherent strategy from the White House beyond a general emphasis on realism and humanitarian norms.
Since he laid down his initial “red line” for intervention about a year ago, President Obama has awkwardly sought to deflect calls from American politicians, the Syrian opposition, and NGOs for more aggressive efforts to boost the Sunni uprising against the Assad regime as reports of human rights abuses and chemical weapons attacks have streamed in. This incident, which took place last Wednesday, appears to have enough shock value behind it — a death toll in the hundreds, and gut-wrenching imagery to go along with the numbers — that Kerry felt safe calling the evidence “undeniable” and the act “inexcusable.” He appealed to basic humanity but also international norms for collective action, referring to long-delayed U.N. efforts to inspect sites of chemical weapons attacks (an attempt to visit the location of this latest incident on Monday ended with one of the inspectors’ vehicles being shot by snipers, the rebels and regime each blaming the other). Perhaps most important, Kerry was determined to make the case, as Powell did, that U.N. efforts were falling short and some kind of military coalition — presumably centered around Britain and France, from whom he has been seeking support over the past few days — is needed to step in and fill the void.
Most observers have taken the speech as indication that the White House has decided on military action and that it’s just a question of the details at this point. After all, U.S. navy ships armed with tomahawk missiles were joined by a fourth vessel in the eastern Mediterranean over the weekend, and British Royal Navy ships are reportedly also readying for action. Meanwhile, Kerry and other officials have been working the phones in hopes of drumming up support for some kind of missile or air strike mission that could tip the balance in favor of the rebels. But given the reactive nature of the Obama policy on Syria, it’s tough to predict just how meaningful the Kerry speech was. In the void left by the lack of consistently elucidated principles for foreign intervention, Americans are looking to the recent past — and the memory of the drumming up of support for the Iraq war — and filling in the details themselves. And they don’t like what they see: a Reuters/Ipsos poll pegs support for an intervention at just 9 percent, less than the percentage who back Communism or who supported President Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal. So Obama’s doctrine is both murky and unpopular, an ominous context for a fresh theater of combat in the Middle East.