John Kerry Takes Another Swing at Convincing Americans on Syria

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Aug. 30 2013 1:43 PM

John Kerry Takes Another Swing at Convincing Americans to Support Strikes in Syria

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks about the situation in Syria from the Treaty Room at the State Department in Washington, DC on August 30, 2013

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

John Kerry on Friday took a second swing at rallying a skeptical American public behind the White House's potential plans to take "limited" military action in Syria, saying that he believes there should be no doubt that the Assad regime was behind a massive chemical weapons attack that claimed the lives of more than 1,400 people. "So the primary question is really no longer, what do we know," the secretary of state said. "The question is, what are we—we collectively—what are we in the world going to do about it."

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

After detailing what he said was clear and compelling evidence that proves the Syrian government was behind the chemical-weapons strike, Kerry turned to the moral case for intervention. "Fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility," Kerry said in a knowing nod to Iraq and Afghanistan. "Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about. And history would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings [and] against all common understanding of decency."

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One reason that Kerry was front and center Friday afternoon making a similar sales pitch to the one he made at the beginning of this week is because many Americans remain unconvinced. An NBC News poll out this morning suggests that half of the country thinks the United States should stay on the sidelines. The White House, likewise, is facing increasing opposition in Washington and abroad.

Kerry appeared to make it clear at the start of the week that the conversation had moved from whether the United States would take action to when. While that still appears to be the case—Kerry's promise to "continue talking" to Congress, etc. aside—plenty has changed since then.

On Thursday evening, British lawmakers rather stunningly rejected the option of their own military involvement, leaving the White House without one of its most trusted allies. That blow to the White House's efforts to cobble together an international coalition was eased, at least somewhat, this morning when French President Francois Hollande said his country is "ready" to act. (Kerry made sure to mention Hollande's support, calling France America's "oldest ally.")

At the same time that Kerry was speaking, the White House released a non-classified version of its case against the Assad regime, a document Kerry urged everyone to read. It's unclear, however, whether the administration's confidence about how the chemical weapons were used will convince a skeptical American public that the United States must—or even should—take action. In an apparent acknowledgment of that, Kerry repeatedly stressed that Obama had not made a final decision yet. "We will continue talking to the Congress, talking to our allies, and most importantly talking to the American people," Kerry said.

Despite that, the administration has painted a picture of what it has in mind, and any questions that remain appear largely to be logistical ones. Kerry again promised that any U.S. action would be "limited and tailored" and would not involve boots on the ground or be open-ended. The review of the evidence has been "more than mindful of the Iraq experience," Kerry promised, adding: "We will not repeat that moment."

This post has been updated.