Two weeks ago in the Philippines, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was asked the same question put to Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday in London. Was there anything left that Syria could do to avoid a U.S. military strike for using chemical weapons? Hagel dodged, nobody noticed, and the U.S. carried on building its case for military strikes on Syria.
Secretary of State John Kerry, however, took the bait and answered a reporter’s question. “Sure, 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 the full and total accounting, but he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done.”
The difference has been striking. Hagel’s refusal to engage the question ensured the U.S. retained control of its public push for action, while keeping Syria (and Russia) increasingly pressured by imminent military strikes, isolated as pariahs in the wake of a chemical weapons atrocity.
After Kerry spoke on Monday, Russia pounced on his offer and said it would try to convince Syria, and Syria has said it has received the idea. Overnight, Kerry became the fall guy for throwing a wrench into the Obama war drum machine, weakening Washington’s stance, handing control of Syria’s timeline to Moscow, and giving Assad a last minute way to avoid military strikes that could have crippled not just his chemical weapons stocks but the regime’s entire military capability, potentially fatally.
On Aug. 30, Hagel was at the end of a nine day Southeast Asian swing during which Syrian strikes seemed so imminent that the traveling Pentagon press corps was told each night whether it seemed safe enough to go sleep or not. By the time Hagel reached Manila, the war drums and reporters were beginning to wane, but nothing was changing out of Syria.
So, the press corps crafted this question for the secretary, asked by NPR’s Larry Abramson:
Q: Thank you. My question is for Secretary Hagel. Sir, is there anything that the Assad regime can do right now to take the military option off the table at this late hour?
SEC. HAGEL: I have not been informed of any change in the Assad regime’s position on any issue. So I deal with the reality of what we have. I don’t speculate on hypothetical situations. I think you know where the United States government is and our analysis of what happened in Syria, as well as most nations of the world condemning the use of chemical weapons and our options as we continue to consult with our allies. We’ll further develop the facts and intelligence on what happened.
Both men are testifying side-by-side before the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday morning. President Obama is scheduled to address the nation from the Oval Office in primetime later in the evening.
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