When an anti-war protester interrupted a congressional hearing on Syria this week to yell, “We don’t want another war,” Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged the irony that he first appeared before the same Senate panel 42 years ago as an anti-war activist.
“When I was 27 years old, I had feelings very similar to that protester. And I would just say that is exactly why it is so important that we are all here having this debate, talking about these things before the country, and that the Congress itself will act representing the American people,” Kerry told the Foreign Relations Committee on Sept. 3.
Kerry, who spent hours testifying on Capitol Hill the past two days to persuade reluctant lawmakers to approve a strike to punish the Syrian regime for what the U.S. says was the gassing of 1,400 people, has emerged as the Obama administration’s most passionate advocate of a military response to an atrocity.
More than President Barack Obama himself, Kerry is the public face of the administration’s campaign to convince the world and the American people that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad committed a war crime and that the U.S. must act in collective self-defense.
The role of chief spokesman for military action — a tough sales job to a war-weary public and Congress — may seem an odd role for a decorated Vietnam War naval officer who rose to prominence as an anti-war campaigner before entering politics. Those who’ve known him for decades say Kerry is doing now what he did in 1971: speaking his conscience about acts of war.
Kerry’s high profile as the administration’s advocate for military action has earned him criticism as well. Retired Army Colonel Larry Wilkerson, who was Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, said Kerry “has become one of those people who in order to stay loyal to this administration” is making a case for a wrong-headed action without recognizing that “war is brutal; you have no idea how the person against whom you’re using force is going to respond.”
“The Secretary of State historically seems to be either a recalcitrant, stubborn opponent of the White House or a lapdog. I worked for one who because of his desire to be loyal” made a faulty case for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, said Wilkerson, a visiting professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, who opposes military action in Syria.
Others interviewed yesterday, including 10 longtime Kerry strategists, observers, political allies or opponents, argued that Kerry’s position on Syria is rooted in his belief in the rules of war and his personal experience on the battlefield.
“It’s the arc of a man’s life,” said Bill Delahunt, a former Democratic congressman from Massachusetts who has known Kerry since the two were young prosecutors. “His history gives him credibility. He speaks with such moral authority now — just as he spoke with moral authority when he entered the national stage. Because he is speaking not just about America’s reputation as a military power, but our obligation under international conventions or war.”
Delahunt, now special counsel with the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based law firm Eckert Seamans, said in an interview that two Democratic lawmakers whom he saw yesterday in Washington told him that Kerry’s performance under tough questioning was “astounding.”
While both had felt “conflicted” about a vote to authorize a military strike, Delahunt said, Kerry articulated the moral reasoning and national interest “in such a way that they are moving clearly toward supporting” the administration.
Kerry spoke out four decades ago when he opposed a war of attrition in Vietnam, and he’s speaking his mind now against the use of banned weapons that indiscriminately kill civilians, said one administration official close to the issue, who wasn’t authorized to be quoted by name and asked not to be identified.
Kerry has never claimed to oppose war in all cases. One of his earliest memories was as a four-year-old boy visiting a family home in St. Briac-sur-Mer, France, where he witnessed the devastation of World War II and “concluded there were wars worth fighting for,” said Michael Kranish, a co-author of “John F. Kerry: The Boston Globe Biography.” Kerry’s father was a diplomat in postwar Berlin, a city that made a lasting impression on the younger Kerry.
“It’s almost too easy to say he is an anti-war person,” Kranish said in an interview. “If you look at the fuller picture, he was against one war” in Vietnam, “but saw that American might is right in other cases.”
Tom Vallely, who was a Marine in Vietnam and got to know Kerry when they both supported another anti-war veteran’s political campaign, called his old friend “an observer of war. He comes to it like an investigative reporter, and he came to the same conclusions as Neil Sheehan or David Halberstam,” Vallely said, referring to two journalists who wrote prize-winning critical accounts of the Vietnam War.
Twice on live television from the State Department last week and five times on Sunday talk shows, Kerry delivered an emotional tirade against Assad’s alleged war crimes, speaking as “a father and a grandfather” who suffered over images of Syrian children gassed to death.
Kerry’s delivery was striking for its contrast with Obama’s more sober tone in a PBS interview and statements in which the president acknowledged the difficulty of any decision and the war-weariness of the American public.
Testifying this week alongside Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a fellow Vietnam veteran, and Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Kerry parried the majority of the lawmakers’ questions and appeared to be the unofficial chief spokesman for the trio.
Kerry’s “passionate” denunciation of Assad for alleged war crimes should not come as a surprise, said Stephanie Cutter, who was Kerry’s communications director during his 2004 presidential run.
“This is not political theater to him; this is his job,” said Cutter, who worked for Obama’s re-election campaign and is a co-host of CNN’s Crossfire. After two decades on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he knows the Middle East and the key players, including Assad, and “because he’s been to war, he speaks with authority” when it’s necessary to take military action “and he doesn’t come to that decision lightly,” she said in an interview.
Cutter, who was at Kerry’s side when he struggled during the 2004 campaign with his regret over voting to authorize the Iraq War, said that decision “weighed heavily on him, and he fully understands mistakes were made in evaluating intelligence and ignoring the advice of the military and rushing to war.” Kerry “sure as hell” would not want to repeat “the mistakes of the previous administration,” she said.
Bob Shrum, Kerry’s senior strategist on his presidential campaign, now a senior fellow at New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, said the senator was haunted by having been misled by faulty intelligence into authorizing the Iraq War. Kerry “would not bring the passion and commitment” to a limited strike “unless he was absolutely certain that the evidence was right,” he said.
William Weld, a two-term Republican governor of Massachusetts who challenged Kerry unsuccessfully for his Senate seat in 1996, said he’s watched his former rival’s performance on Capitol Hill with admiration.
“John Kerry has been the absolute hero of the Syria situation,” Weld said in an interview. “He has grown in office as Secretary of State and is really coming into his own.”