Touting his four years as secretary of state, John Kerry on Thursday attempted to explain one of the most contentious moments in American diplomacy during his tenure: President Barack Obama's failure to enforce his "red line" warning to Syria about using chemical weapons.
In a news conference meant to promote his achievements, Kerry said that Obama didn't backtrack in 2013 on his ultimatum to Syrian President Bashar Assad not to attack rebels or civilians with his chemical weapons arsenal. Kerry said this "unfair perception" nevertheless hurt U.S. credibility.
The elaborate explanation of events more than three years ago reflected the lingering importance that many of the Obama administration's critics, as well as some international allies, ascribe to the episode. Even some U.S. officials have grumbled that Obama signaled that he wasn't prepared to use force in Syria or the Middle East, and could buckle under pressure.
Although Obama has rejected such reasoning, it has been harder for him ever since to convince America's friends and foes that the U.S. maintained a credible threat of force in response to aggression elsewhere, such as Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.
In 2012, Obama said any use or movement of chemical weapons by Assad would cross a "red line" and draw a U.S. military response. A year later, when U.S. officials determined that chemical weapons were used to kill hundreds outside Damascus, Obama sought congressional approval for military action and then pursued a diplomatic solution with Russia.
Kerry noted the shift came after then-British Prime Minister David Cameron failed to get parliamentary approval to join in airstrikes and after many U.S. lawmakers voiced their reluctance to approve the use of American force. He said Obama ultimately opted for a better solution: a diplomatic deal that enabled Syria to give up its declared chemical weapon stockpiles.
"The bottom line is, folks, the president never retracted his intent to (use force), he just got rid of the need to do it by embracing a different approach that got all the weapons out," Kerry told reporters at the State Department. He said the negotiated response was more effective than military action because there was no guarantee airstrikes could have accomplished the same thing.
Kerry acknowledged that people far and wide saw the sequence of events as Obama backing down. And he said that view damaged America's effectiveness.
"I will acknowledge to you absolutely, I heard it all over the place," he said. "The perception hurt, yes. The perception hurt."
Kerry said, "I don't think it's fair because I don't think it actually reflected the decisions that he made and it doesn't reflect the reality of what we were able to achieve."