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Aug 31, 2013| Courtesy by : politico.com
Meet John Kerry, chief prosecutor for President Barack Obama.
Both in public and behind the scenes, the secretary of State has emerged as the most forceful advocate for the administration’s case that Bashar Assad’s regime used chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war.
A former assistant district attorney in Massachusetts, Kerry delivered a point-by-point closing argument Friday, spending nearly 20 minutes detailing why the U.S. intelligence community has “high confidence” that Assad killed 1,429 peoplein a chemical weapons attack last week.
And it was Kerry — not Obama — who in a private conference call Thursday night challenged members of Congress for concrete proposals on how Obama should retaliate.
For Kerry, the Syria crisis is an opportunity to step out of the shadows of both Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and establish himself anew in front of the American people. Kerry has long shuddered at the thought that he’s dovish or too soft, and his aides have privately argued that he’s been more forward leaning on a Syria strike than some other administration officials.
Obama, aware that the American people are weary of war, has thus far remained comfortably seated in the second chair on the prosecution’s side.
That dynamic suits the designs of both men, according to one former senior State Department official.
“Having Kerry out front gives Kerry what he wants, a visible public profile on the burning issue of the day, and gives the White House what they want, a measure of remove from a no-win conflict,” the former official said. “If things go surprisingly well, the president can always swoop back into public view.”
But while Kerry has pounded out the case against Assad, he has yet to recommend a sentence. On the Thursday night conference call, Kerry pushed back on lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who urged the administration to retaliate without offering a specific plan that they would support.
“He really put it back on the members well,” said a source who was on the call. “When he asked [Pelosi] what she suggested doing, she literally stuttered.”
The duality — concluding that a response is needed while prodding lawmakers to specify their views — reflects the president’s own ambivalence in making a decision that he and his aides insist is still being considered. But there was nothing ambiguous or nuanced in the way Kerry detailed evidence against Assad on Friday.
Fifteen times on Friday, Kerry introduced a finding with the definitive phrase “we know” to present findings as fact — that Assad had chemical weapons, that he had used them before, that he had targeted the area where they were used, that the regime had warned its allies ahead of time to prepare for the attack, and the time and location of rocket launches and strikes.
“In all of these things that I have listed, in all of these things that we know, all of them, the American intelligence community has high confidence, high confidence,” Kerry said. “This is common sense. This is evidence. These are facts.”
Kerry began tapping out his thoughts for Friday’s remarks on his iPad Thursday night after the congressional conference call, emphasizing his need to drive home each piece of evidence.
“He feels like it’s necessary to have a clear recitation of what ‘we know,’” said a person close to Kerry. “That was the phraseology he used for a very specific reason.”
Obama had hoped to avoid more conflicts in the Arab world after launching strikes in Libya in early 2011 and twice struggling to pick the right winner in Egypt’s revolutions. But he may have boxed himself into retaliatory strikes in Syria by declaring a year ago that Assad would cross a “red line” if he used chemical weapons to gain an advantage in that country’s civil war.
As Obama’s Cabinet and senior White House aides have steadily built the twin cases for concluding that Assad used chemical weapons and that the United States should respond militarily, the president himself has addressed those questions only in pre-arranged interviews with CNN and PBS,and in answer to a single question on Friday in the Cabinet Room.
“A lot of people think something should be done, but nobody wants to do it,” Obama said. But he also suggested that he remains ambivalent. “It is important for us to recognize that when over a thousand people are killed, including hundreds of innocent children, through the use of a weapon that 98 percent or 99 percent of humanity says should not be used even in war, and there is no action, then we’re sending a signal.”
The person close to Kerry said that enumerating the evidence that Assad used chemical weapons is a job better suited to a presidential aide.
“There’s a certain potency to the president’s words,” the source said. “When you’re trying to buttress an intelligence report like this, it takes some time to do it and the secretary probably was the best choice for somebody to make that case in that way.”
Still, Kerry’s been Obama’s stand-in with the American public and Congress.
When American officials began beating the drums of war on Monday, it was Kerry who told reporters there was little doubt that Assad had used chemical weapons and that “international norms cannot be violated without consequences.”
He reprised the role of lead chemical-weapons scourge on Friday. “This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons. This is what Assad did to his own people,” Kerry said.
In a 2004 interview with The New Yorker, Kerry bristled at the suggestion that his liberal politics and history as a Navy veteran turned anti-Vietnam War activist made him a good fit for the public defender’s office.
“I always had a prosecutor’s mind and a prosecutor’s bent,” Kerry said. “It was always what I wanted to do, even in law school.”