PARIS — Secretary of State John F. Kerry declared here Saturday that he is winning international support for the US effort to launch strikes against Syria, an announcement that underscored his growing role as the administration’s chief salesman for military action.
“We have a movement,” Kerry said about an international coalition for taking action to punish Syria for allegedly using chemical weapons on its own people. “There is a building element of support.”
Kerry also said that countries “in the double digits” are prepared to join the United States and France in taking military action, although he did not name those countries.
Standing in an ornate room at the French Foreign Ministry, with its six broad chandeliers and golden motifs, Kerry tried, as he has in speeches since the chemical attack, to compel the world to action by evoking the images of young children gasping for air and “having their lives stolen from them in the middle of the night . . . by one man who has no conscience.”
“This is not the time to be silent spectators to slaughter,’’ Kerry said. ‘‘This is not the time to allow a dictator unfettered use of some of the heinous weapons on earth.’’
It was a striking scene for the man who lost the 2004 presidential campaign, during which he was ridiculed by Republicans for his fluency in French. On Saturday, Kerry embraced his deep knowledge of the region and, for eight straight minutes, spoke in French as he appealed for support.
“Bashar al-Assad a franchi cette ligne rouge,” Kerry said, asserting that the Syrian president had crossed the red line, a reference to President Obama’s statement last year that using chemical weapons would be intolerable.
Kerry arrived here in the midst of a four-day mission that further solidifies him as the Obama administration’s chief advocate for military strikes.
It is not only one of the biggest tests for President Obama, but also a moment that could define Kerry’s legacy, offering a counterpoint to his earliest days as a public figure, when he led protests against the Vietnam War, in which he served.
“From a communications perspective, it’s Kerry’s war,” said Richard Fontaine, president of Center for a New American Security and a former foreign policy adviser to Senator John McCain. “He’s been very articulate on this.”
It is not what Kerry envisioned when he packed boxes in his Senate office in Boston in January and pondered how he would try to use diplomacy to deal with Syria.
“We’re going to have a major meeting on Syria in the next few days,” Kerry said in an interview at the time, the day before he became secretary of state. “That is one hell of a challenge.”
The challenge now is for Kerry and Obama to convince a war-weary American public and a skeptical international community that military action is needed, and will have the desired deterrent effect. He shuttled between meetings on Saturday morning in Vilnius, Lithuania, with foreign ministers from the European Union, desperate to build a broader international coalition behind Obama’s position. By nightfall, he was in Paris meeting with his French counterpart.
There are some signs that he’s being heard.
Ministers of the European Union, and its 28 member states, on Saturday emerged from a meeting with Kerry and unanimously condemned Syria’s use of chemical weapons as “a blatant violation of international law, a war crime, and a crime against humanity.”
“We cannot just ignore this” said Lithuanian Foreign Minister Lindas Linkevicius, who hosted the meeting.
But while the EU urged “a clear and strong response,” it also called for a delay in any military action until United Nations inspectors complete their report, which is expected later this month. Kerry said he was pleased by the statement — as well as a separate one from Germany — but made no promises that the United States would wait for the UN report.
After arriving in Paris on Saturday afternoon, Kerry strolled in a courtyard with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, where the two were seen engaged in animated conversation as they map out a strategy for getting more countries engaged. Kerry then held a press conference before a battery of French TV cameras, beginning his remarks in French.
President François Hollande of France has been one of the chief backers of the US effort to launch military strikes. He has resisted calls for him to get approval from the French Parliament, although the strikes remain unpopular in France and on Friday he said any military action should be postponed until the UN inspectors’ report is completed.
Kerry had harsh words for the United Nations, where Russia has used its influence to protect its ally, Syria.
“Are we supposed to turn away because the UN itself has become a tool of ideology or individual nations?” he asked.
Kerry also reflected on how the lingering resentment over the Iraq war, which was built on faulty intelligence, is impeding the push against Syria.
“There is an Iraq hangover,” said Kerry, who voted for the war before turning against it. “We all got burned by that, and we’re still paying the price.”
Kerry’s involvement in Syrian issues is longstanding. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry traveled to Damascus in 2009, dining with President Assad and trying to convince a man he viewed as a potential reformer to support broader peace in the Middle East.
“Kerry was the Syria bull,” said Peter Feaver, who worked on the Bush administration’s National Security Council and was involved in several Iraq strategy reviews. “If you say, ‘Who was the most prominent advocate for a Syria rapprochement?’ That was Kerry. Some of the more emotional words that he’s used may be partly a sense of a jilted suitor.”
On that 2009 visit, and several others, Kerry requested several things of Assad. He wanted the United States to be able to purchase land for the US Embassy in Damascus. He wanted an American cultural center to open, and he wanted border assistance with Iraq.
“Syria is an essential player in bringing peace and stability to the region,” Kerry told reporters after a three-hour meeting with Assad in 2010.
Kerry still voiced some skepticism, but it was clear that, at the time, he viewed diplomacy as the best course.
“My judgment is that Syria will move,” Kerry said in a 2011 speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Syria will change as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West and economic opportunity that comes with it.”
In the days after last month’s alleged chemical weapons attack, top administration officials decided they had to respond and begin to build the case for targeted military strikes. Even though it involved military action — something that would be overseen by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel — there was a collective decision to make Kerry the point person.
On Aug. 29, a Thursday, top national security officials met in the Situation Room at the White House. The British House of Commons had voted against participating in military action in Syria, a vote that Kerry knew would be close. The consensus among Obama’s advisors was that Kerry should speak the next day, further outlining the case.
Kerry, who often shows up at work with an armful of legal pads filled with his slanted penmanship, began to gather his thoughts. He used those notepads, as well as notes he tapped out on his iPad, and worked with his staff to deliver remarks that were widely seen as a battle cry for action.
“Kerry’s rhetoric has been the most vivid and the most compelling — and emotional,” Feaver said. “Kerry’s remarks greatly amped up the urgency and the necessity to act.”
But that night, hours after Kerry delivered the remarks, Obama shocked his advisers when he said he had decided to first seek congressional approval. Obama called Kerry at home that night to inform him. The next afternoon Kerry sat with a handful of his top advisers in his seventh floor office at the State Department and watched the television screen as Obama publicly announced his decision from the Rose Garden.
Shortly afterward, Kerry was booked on all five Sunday television shows. Instead of making the case for battle, as he had on Friday, he was now making the case for Congress to act.
Kerry has been tasked with a delicate job: win votes in Congress, both from lawmakers who are worried that the president is going to do too little in Syria, and from lawmakers who fear that the president will go too far.
That has caused some public whipsawing. Last week, during testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Kerry initially said one option remaining on the table was putting troops on the ground in Syria. But under tough questioning from senators, he later clarified himself, several times, insisting there would be no US troops sent into Syria.
“Is this easy? No,” said Bob Shrum, a longtime Kerry adviser and confidant. “This is not teed up for the administration to get this through Congress. Almost every other situation [involving military action] has been teed up.”
Kerry, perhaps more than anyone, knows this.
He has alternated on this trip between trying to sell the plan to the world and courting members of Congress on the phone. Even in Paris, he addressed the American people, as well as the French, outlining the case for why Americans should care.
“This matters to Americans as a matter of security,” Kerry said. “The stability of the Middle East matters to Americans. It matters to Americans whether Syria implodes and breaks apart.”
“It matters to all of us,” he added. “And I think we need to stand up and be counted.”Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.