Did John Kerry Just Make the Case for Military Action in Syria?

If the bombs start falling on Damascus, Monday afternoon will be cited as the moment when the Obama administration laid out the moral case for military action in Syria.

In a stern statement, Secretary of State John Kerry presented the White House's case against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and pledged that the United States will hold him accountable for turning his chemical weapons on his own people. Against the background of White House leaks that President Obama has been presented with updated target lists and is mulling military intervention in Syria, Kerry's remarks had the unmistakable feel of a prelude to war.

"Make no mistake: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapons against the world's most vulnerable people," Kerry said. "Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny."

On the heels of previous allegations of chemical weapons use, the administration has attempted to defuse calls for a military response by emphasizing the need for scientific verification that chemical weapons had in fact been used. That caution was nowhere to be found in Kerry's remarks on Monday.

"Anyone who could claim that an attack of this staggering scale could be contrived or fabricated needs to check their conscience and their own moral compass," Kerry said. "What is before us today is real, and it is compelling."

"The reported number of victims, the reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, the firsthand accounts from humanitarian organizations on the ground, like Doctors Without Borders and the Syria Human Rights Commission, these all strongly indicate that everything these images are already screaming at us is real, that chemical weapons were used in Syria," Kerry added.

In his daily briefing Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney underscored the White House view that chemical weapons were used and that Assad was responsible. "There is very little doubt in our minds that the Syrian regime is culpable," he said.

Since last week's apparent chemical weapons attack, which left as many as 1,000 people dead in a suburb east of Damascus, there has been a clear shift in tone from the Obama White House, and nowhere was that more on display than in Kerry's remarks, where the secretary's personal anguish was placed front and center.

"As a father, I can't get the image out of my head of a man who held up his dead child, wailing, while chaos swirled around him, the images of entire families dead in their beds without a drop of blood or even a visible wound, bodies contorting in spasms, human suffering that we can never ignore or forget," Kerry said.

Though Obama has at nearly all turns of the Syrian conflict resisted any action that might drag the United States into another war in the Middle East, the latest reports of chemical warfare in the country presents the clearest challenge yet to the president's now-infamous declaration that the use of such weapons constituted a clear "red line" in the conflict that the Assad regime should think twice about crossing. Now, the Assad regime has flouted that demand and left Obama looking hapless in the face of its brutal tactics.

Taken together, the Obama administration's actions now point to a readying of the country's military apparatus to strike back at Syria. On Saturday, President Obama huddled with his national security advisors to consider potential military options, though Carney went to great lengths to emphasize that "no decision has been made" about military force. Meanwhile, American warships with the capability to launch cruise missiles deep into Syrian territory continue to idle in the Mediterranean.

But even if no decision has been made, Carney laid out a deliberate case for war against Syria, which appears to hinge on the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons. "The use of these weapons is a threat to our national interest and a concern to the entire world," Carney said. "It is because this international norm exits and because it has been so clearly violated that we and people around the world have to address this and seek an appropriate response."

For now, the White House appears committed to a political juggling act that protects the president's options in choosing how to respond. Should he choose to launch a retaliatory strike, his lieutenants have already laid out a case justifying the move. If Obama backs down, his administration has at the very least issued a forceful statement and rattled its saber in a very loud way.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


How the Media Got the Bo Xilai Trial Wrong

On July 25, after months of silence about Bo Xilai, the disgraced Chinese politician who hadn't been seen in public since his sacking in March 2012, China's official Xinhua news agency ran a two-sentence story stating that Bo had been indicted for bribery, corruption, and abuse of power, inciting speculation that a carefully managed and day-long show trial would begin within weeks. "Trial of Bo Xilai likely to be swift and predictable, say experts," a Guardian headline advised.

The timing, at least, turned out to be true: Bo Xilai's trial began on Aug. 22. But as for many other details about the trial, we in the foreign press were way off. Bo's five-day trial featured explosive allegations, remarkable transparency -- the court in the provincial capital of Jinan, where the trial was held, released much of the testimony via their microblog -- and a command performance by Bo himself.

Chinese politics are notoriously opaque -- elite politics, especially when it involves the biggest public scandal the Communist Party has faced in decades, even more so. All of which made predicting how China's trial of the century will play out very difficult.

Consider some of the stories that appeared in the weeks leading up to the trial. The Guardian expected the trial to last "a few hours," not several days. A July 31 Reuters story, meanwhile, claimed Bo had agreed to plead guilty to at least some of the charges, which he ultimately didn't (the story did hedge by adding, "It remains to be seen if his decision to plead guilty will hold until the trial").

Writing in Bloomberg, China scholar Minxin Pei predicted the trial would be "an anticlimax. Even if the trial were public, we would witness no courtroom drama," he noted. "Bo ... will almost certainly be presented as a broken and penitent man." Instead, a defiant Bo gave an impressive performance. He called his wife "insane" and said that the defection of police chief Wang Lijun, which dragged the scandal into the public light in February 2012, came about after Bo learned that Wang was having an affair with his wife. He demolished the testimony of imprisoned businessman Xu Ming, whom Bo is accused of bribing -- at one point saying the conversations he allegedly had with Xu were so outrageous that they "would not even appear in the cheapest television dramas." Bo presented himself as canny and sympathetic; there was nothing broken about the master politician on display in the courtroom these last five days in Jinan.

Personally, I was confident that Bo Xilai would surface with gray hair. Chinese politicians have a well-known penchant for dying their hair, and I figured that in the few images of the trial broadcast on Chinese television, Bo would appear, head bowed, hair gray, and mumble a few words of contrition before the camera panned away. I discussed the story with Foreign Policy contributor Paul French, who wrote, "I'm looking forward to the gray hair -- they always deny them the hair dye in prison and so the most shocking thing is the gray hair -- publicly parading a senior Chinese politician with gray hair is tantamount to [making] him walk naked through town!!"

But that was not how events played out. When a picture of Bo with a lustrous head of black hair, emerged online, French wrote back: "interesting to see hair looking dark still?"

The missteps in the coverage of Bo's trial haven't all been recent, or confined to the foreign press. In January, China's state-run Ta Kung Pao newspaper reported that Bo's trial would start later that month in the southern Chinese city of Guiyang, citing "well-informed Beijing sources."  Dozens of reporters flew to Guiyang, only to learn that no trial had been planned. "Flummoxed, local court officials held a hasty and unusual press conference to deny a trial was in the offing and pleaded for the media to leave them alone," Reuters correspondent John Ruwitch wrote from Guiyang. (Coverage of the international aspects of the case, like the Bo family's villa in Cannes, and the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, have proved more accurate and comprehensive.) 

Beijing managed to keep much of the Bo saga -- and the elite machinations that precipitated it -- from the foreign press. As humbling as it may be to admit, we know very little about what goes on at the highest levels of Chinese politics. The most honest headline I've seen recently -- and it must have driven its editor crazy -- came from Voice of America in early August: "China's Biggest Corruption Trial in Decades Remains a Mystery."