Would you go to war just because John Kerry said it was good idea?
Neither would I.
There was Secretary of State Kerry, his usual sonorous, stentorian, shaggy, slate-gray self, on five — count ’em, five — Sunday talk shows and in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, plumping for the administration’s questionable plan to teach Syrian dictator Bashir Assad a lesson he’ll soon forget. Kerry reached deep into his formidable arsenal of portentous clichés: The region is at risk; “a test of our resolve”; “we cannot — cannot — stand by”; and so on.
Kerry explained that the unhinged Syrian strongman threatens the vital interests of Israel, Turkey, and Jordan. The last time I checked, Israel, Turkey, and Jordan all have armies, indeed rather large ones. Maybe they should get together and teach Assad this badly needed lesson. Or perhaps they prefer that we shoulder the burden of any attack on Syria, and the subsequent risks of retaliation.
It is hard not to dwell on the irony of John Kerry, who burst onto the national stage in 1971 as a 28-year-old anti-war Vietnam veteran testifying against a questionably motivated foreign war, now storming Capitol Hill to make the case for a hermetic little military action in the Middle East. The Vietnam War began as a series of hermetic little military actions and quickly ballooned into a conflagration that claimed 58,000 American lives. How quickly they forget.
The big problem with the rush to strike Syria is not one of Kerry’s making. The idea of a casus belli — Latin for “a reason to make war” — was totally discredited by the George W. Bush administration’s “weapons of mass destruction” shenanigans in 2003. We have seen this before: smooth-talking diplomats offering background briefings with incontrovertible evidence of. . . fill in the blank — chemical weapons, fissionable materials, long-range rockets retrofitted for nerve gas, etc.
The secretary of state at the time was the hapless Colin Powell, and, just as Kerry is doing now, he wandered around Capitol Hill, popped in at the usual media watering holes, and regaled our friends and enemies with rock-solid evidence that the unhinged Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein was planning to unleash nuclear havoc.
Of course, it was all bunk.
Now we wonder, with considerable justification: Will we get fooled again?
Let’s revisit Vietnam, the conflict that created the public John Kerry. As we now know, the casus belli for President Lyndon Johnson’s war was a very slender reed. In order to send troops to Southeast Asia, Johnson sold Congress a bill of goods known as the “Gulf of Tonkin incident,” which was actually two separate incidents, one of which never occurred.
In the first incident, an American destroyer on an electronic spying mission fired at three North Vietnamese patrol boats planning to attack it. (The Americans later said the enemy fired first). A skirmish ensued, and, aided by carrier aircraft, the US destroyer beat off the patrol boats. The National Security Agency, which even in 1964 picked up a lot of enemy radio traffic, later revealed that the North Vietnamese tried to cancel the attack, but their patrol boats never received the recall message. “Since no Americans had been hurt,” the NSA wrote, “President Johnson wanted the event downplayed.”
It was the second Gulf of Tonkin incident two days later, a supposed attack on two US destroyers, that prompted Johnson to demand warmaking powers from a complaisant Congress. Only two members of Congress, Democratic Senators Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening, voted against the resolution. Subsequent analysis revealed that the American destroyers were firing at “ghosts” on their radar screens. Johnson explained the non-confrontation in his inimitable style: “Hell, those dumb, stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish.”
In 1971, with the Vietnam war in full swing, the former Navy lieutenant John Kerry asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Now an older, less wise Kerry is back again, posing the question in a slightly different way: Who wants to be the first man to die for what will later prove to be a mistake?
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.