The Second Verse, Same as the First? … Hardly.
I’ll admit it; I watched the hearings yesterday with a healthy dose of skepticism. Anyone who has read my musings here on This Week in Blackness, or previously on Jack and Jill Politics, knows that I am a fan of the President—that I am a defender of his policy and of him in general. But the idea of presenting evidence about chemical weapons reeked of Iraq. It wasn’t simply, “Déjà vu all over again,” it was a stark reminder of Secretary of State Colin Powell and his presentation to the U.N. A convincing performance by someone I admired and trusted, that turned out to be completely false.
A little context is needed: Colin Powell spoke in authoritative tones, as did Kerry. He cloaked his comments in the personal and professional reputation of a weary warrior, as did Kerry. The key difference: Powell established a rubric for going to war that was riddled with holes and while the evidence appeared firm, there was, in fact, a lot of wiggle room for interpretation. For example, Powell stated:
The material I will present to you comes from a variety of sources. Some are U.S. sources. And some are those of other countries.
This is coded language and Powell said this in the very opening of his remarks to the U.N. It basically says, the United States didn’t have full control over the intelligence and left room for another country, the United Kingdom for example, to take the blame. This statement was a rhetorical escape hatch, a non-denial denial. Powell didn’t say, “We have vetted this intel from other nations and know it to be true.” Rather he demarcated U.S. Intelligence from “Intelligence from other sources.” Basically, if we get this wrong, someone else, someone either willfully complicit or flat-out wrong is to blame. Not us.
Powell went on to say:
Some of the sources are technical, such as intercepted telephone conversations and photos taken by satellites. Other sources are people who have risked their lives to let the world know what Saddam Hussein is really up to. I cannot tell you everything that we know. But what I can share with you, when combined with what all of us have learned over the years, is deeply troubling.
“Deeply troubling.” That is a far cry from John Kerry’s statement:
We can tell you beyond any reasonable doubt that our evidence proves the Assad regime prepared for this attack, issued instructions to prepare for this attack, warned its own forces to use gas masks; that we have physical evidence of where the rockets came from and when. (emphasis added)
And earlier Kerry said,
Now, some people here and there, amazingly, have questioned the evidence of this assault on conscience. I repeat here again today that only the most willful desire to avoid reality can assert that this did not occur as described or that the regime did not do it. It did happen, and the Assad regime did it. (emphasis added)
The two statements sound alike on the surface, but at their core they are very different. Powell is leaving himself and our administration the room to say the Brits (or other foreign intelligence sources) cooked the intelligence — which we did. He he left himself and the Bush Administration the room to say that our human intel sources lied to us – which we did also.
Kerry left no such room. Yes, he was less specific than Powell, saving much of his “proof,” for the classified briefings that held since. And Powell did not have an inciting incident: the gas attack. that left over 1,000 people dead. But even without articulating the evidence in specific detail Kerry stated, without flex, that Assad did this, we know it, and in a classified briefing we will prove it.
The risk for Kerry is staggering, if Assad did not use chemical weapons, if there was no Sarin, or if some other group did it, Kerry falls and the Administration potentially falls with him. It is neck or nothing. It is that conviction and powerful oratorical position that has forced opponents to make the argument that whether Assad used Sarin gas or not isn’t the point. The point is whether or not even in the face of his use we should attack.
So much of politics is leaving oneself a back door and leaving yourself a way out when the fit hits the shan. So much of politics is about dancing in the gap between absolutes. But Kerry rejected all of that. Kerry understood the power in a simple truth and a clear statement.
Bill Clinton famously said during a deposition, “It depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.” That is the well-trod ground of political-speak and how politics is played. John Kerry didn’t do that and he reminded us all that it is possible to be right and moral and to ask for something you don’t really want for the good of the nation and the world.
J. Christian Watts
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