Of Course You Realize This Means War

John Kerry's speech was the crossing of the Rubicon for US military action in Syria.


Yesterday morning, I read the tea leaves and noted that Syria intervention looks inevitable. Yesterday afternoon, Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a speech which seemed to confirm that point.

What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world. It defies any code of morality. Let me be clear. The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable. And despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable.

The meaning of this attack goes beyond the conflict on Syria itself. And that conflict has already brought so much terrible suffering. This is about the large-scale indiscriminate use of weapons that the civilized world long ago decided must never be used at all, a conviction shared even by countries that agree on little else.

There is a clear reason that the world has banned entirely the use of chemical weapons. There is a reason the international community has set a clear standard and why many countries have taken major steps to eradicate these weapons. There is a reason why President Obama has made it such a priority to stop the proliferation of these weapons, and lock them down where they do exist. There is a reason why President Obama has made clear to the Assad regime that this international norm cannot be violated without consequences. And there is a reason why no matter what you believe about Syria, all peoples and all nations who believe in the cause of our common humanity must stand up to assure that there is accountability for the use of chemical weapons so that it never happens again.

Last night, after speaking with foreign ministers from around the world about the gravity of this situation, I went back and I watched the videos — the videos that anybody can watch in the social media, and I watched them one more gut-wrenching time. It is really hard to express in words the the human suffering that they lay out before us.

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. 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.

Others in the administration reinforced the message, but publicly and privately:

President Obama is weighing a military strike against Syria that would be of limited scope and duration, designed to serve as punishment for Syria’s use of chemical weapons and as a deterrent, while keeping the United States out of deeper involvement in that country’s civil war, according to senior administration officials.

The timing of such an attack, which would probably last no more than two days and involve sea-launched cruise missiles — or, possibly, long-range bombers — striking military targets not directly related to Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, would be dependent on three factors: completion of an intelligence report assessing Syrian government culpability in last week’s alleged chemical attack; ongoing consultation with allies and Congress; and determination of a justification under international law.

“We’re actively looking at the various legal angles that would inform a decision,” said an official who spoke about the presidential deliberations on the condition of anonymity. Missile-armed U.S. warships are already positioned in the Mediterranean.

As the administration moved rapidly toward a decision, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said the use of chemical weapons in an attack Wednesday against opposition strongholds on the outskirts of Damascus is now “undeniable.”

Evidence being gathered by United Nations experts in Syria was important, Kerry said, but not necessary to prove what is already “grounded in facts, informed by conscience and guided by common sense.”


Among the factors, officials said, are that only the government is known to possess chemical weapons and the rockets to deliver them, and its continuing control of chemical stocks has been closely monitored by U.S. intelligence.

Writing at Foreign Policy‘s Passport blog, Elias Groll observes, “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.”

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 [White House Press Secretary Jay] 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.

I agree with all but the last sentence; we’ve now reached the point where rattling the saber without using it would cripple the administration’s foreign policy credibility. Issuing a red line an not following through, while mildly embarrassing, is survivable. One can always claim that the action didn’t quite meet the threshold or that one’s follow up constituted the appropriate retaliation. The boldness of Kerry’s rhetoric means there are no more excuses. The Rubicon has been crossed.

Frankly, it’s not obvious to me how lobbing a few missiles in a “punitive” strike answers the call Kerry has made. But, given that President Obama has—rightly, in my judgment—decided over these past two years plus that the horrible toll of death and refugees in Syria’s civil war does not justify significant US military intervention, I trust that a symbolic strike will be the end of it.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, World Politics, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. rodney dill says:

    …or they could be placed on double secret probation.

  2. C. Clavin says:

    This means war… Depends on what war means.
    I wouldn’t refer to our actions in Libya as war.
    Military action yes…war no.
    I think Obama is smarter than to get us dragged into boots on the ground war…which is why he got my vote…and not McCain or Romney.
    Were one of those two in office…that would mean war.

  3. Rob in CT says:

    Great title!

  4. Gavrilo says:

    As soon as the administration identifies a suitable aspirin factory…bombs away.

  5. OldmanRick says:

    Great way to distract the voters from the IRS scandal, the NSA scandal, the Benghazi scandal, the Obamascare scandal, the amnesty scandal, and the never ending Fast and Furious scandal. Yep, just what Valarie Jarrett and the rest of the dim trolls need to save the brat’s falling numbers..

  6. Neil Hudelson says:


    The first three could be called scandals, if you want to stretch the definition of the word. Obamacare and “amnesty” aren’t scandals. They are policies put in place by a duly elected, representative, government. I’m sorry you don’t like it. Maybe you should organize your fellow citizens and find a presidential candidate to campaign against these policies. Once you do, and if the American people agree with you, your side will be voted in.

    Of course you tried that. The American people are not with you. (And by “amnesty” you mean increasing deportations and border security at a rate higher than has ever been seen, right?”)

    And Fast and Furious? Really? You think the American people have been focused on that, and would be right now, if it weren’t for Syria? How delusional are yoU?

  7. Tyrell says:

    “requiring a full retaliatory response ” Kennedy, October 22, 1962. Sounds similar to words I am hearing today.
    Probably the scariest week in world history. I remember that many people I knew did not expect to
    live through the week. In fact it was highly likely that a full nuclear attack would occur, wiping out 1/3 of the US, the east coast. The leaders felt that the US would still be the winners in a war with a third of the population gone! Amazingly things worked out and it did not happen.
    The question that no one has asked or addressed: will an attack bring other countries in to help Syria? If so, it could escalate, and that is scary.

  8. JWH says:

    John Kerry as Bugs Bunny? Sometimes I worry the US is more like Yosemite Sam.