Read as much as you want on BostonGlobe.com, anywhere and anytime, for just 99¢.

opinion | Farah Stockman

Kerry’s comments were fighting words

They were definitely fighting words. John Kerry stood at the State Department podium and delivered some of the strongest phrases ever uttered from that diplomatic perch: He said Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people was “undeniable.” He called it “a moral obscenity.”

He declared that “our sense of basic humanity is offended not only by this cowardly crime but also by the cynical attempt to cover it up.”

Continue reading below

The speech was so filled with eloquent outrage that one expected Kerry to announce that cruise missiles had hit some target inside Damascus. But no. All Kerry announced was that the administration was going to keep considering its options. Why did he give a speech like that at all?

@ZLGold said it best when he tweeted this translation of Kerry’s speech:

1. #Syria regime’s actions are morally abhorrent.

2. Given that, I have no policy updates.

3. Thank you.

The only possible explanation is that it is meant to signal to America’s friends and foes alike that some military action is about to be taken.

After a speech like that, the Obama administration pretty much has to blow something up, simply to maintain its own credibility. Otherwise, it looks like that guy at a bar who talks a lot of trash, but never stands up from his chair.

It’s important to remember that Obama warned in May that the use of chemical weapons would be a “game changer.” If he doesn’t act now, who will believe him when he warns Iran not to develop a nuclear weapon?

My prediction is that Obama will conduct a limited strike on a Syrian military target. It will be a big enough response to say he punished Assad, but too small to draw the United States into a long-term conflict. It probably won’t affect the course of Syria’s tragic civil war.

President Clinton was the master of such non-committal, non-escalatory strikes. In 1998, after two US embassies were bombed in Kenya and Tanzania, Clinton sent cruise missiles into an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. (Take that, terrorists.) And the same year, after Saddam Hussein announced he would no longer cooperate with UN weapons inspectors, Clinton bombed intelligence and security targets, to punish Saddam. It was just enough to shut up Clinton’s critics, who were calling for an all-out-war. (Take that, Donald Rumsfeld.)

Still, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about a quick US military response in Syria. Despite Kerry’s assertion that it is “undeniable” that Assad used chemical weapons against his own people last week, I would still like to understand why Assad would undertake such an action, just days after allowing UN weapons inspectors in. Assad is, by all accounts, winning the war. Why would he do something that would risk drawing in the United States?

And while it is true that Assad is the only party known to have chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war, the theft of chemical weapons by terrorist groups has always been the Obama administration’s biggest fear in Syria. How likely is it that some other group stole the weapons and used them, in a desperate attempt to get international intervention? Unlikely, to be sure. But it would not be the first time that an underdog in a civil war committed a dramatic act with unthinkable consequences for its own side. (Think: Rwanda.)

I’d also love to know why UN weapons inspectors are suddenly irrelevant. On Thursday, Kerry demanded that they be allowed access to the site of the alleged chemical weapons attack. On Sunday — just three days later — the Obama administration proclaimed it “too late” for the inspectors to do any good. That’s odd. Trained weapons inspectors can find useful clues weeks after an attack, by interviewing survivors. If the weapons inspectors were “too late to be credible” — as Kerry said today — somebody should have told them that before they risked their lives today trying to do their job. The rush to stop the work of UN inspectors — and get on with the business of war — echoes the unfortunate preamble of the Iraq War.

Lastly, where was our eloquent outrage when Iraq used chemical weapons on Iran in the 1980s? There were surprisingly few speeches back then about the shocked conscience of the world. If we are going to say the use of chemical weapons is beyond the pale, it ought to be beyond the pale for everybody, no matter who the victims are.

Loading comments...

You have reached the limit of 10 free articles in a month

Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.

  • High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
  • Convenient access across all of your devices
  • Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
  • Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
  • Less than 25¢ a week