Hagel Dodged the Kerry Question Two Weeks Ago

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National Journal
Kevin Baron, Defense One
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Kevin Baron, Defense One
Sept. 10, 2013, 9:58 a.m.

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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