Unbelievably Small and Incredibly Unpersuasive
The president has created such a mess that even John Kerry’s gaffe is an escape hatch.

Secretary of State John Kerry


Rich Lowry

Now that John Kerry is the secretary of state, his gaffes can launch major diplomatic initiatives.

A reporter in London asked what Syrian president Bashar Assad could do to avoid war. Kerry responded: “He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done.”

The State Department quickly noted that the secretary was merely making a rhetorical point. But the Russians immediately embraced the Kerry flourish as a serious proposal. It was “welcomed” by Damascus and spoken of warmly by the U.N. secretary general and the British and French governments.

In her highly anticipated remarks on the Syria crisis, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton said action on the Kerry gaffe-turned-plan would be an “important step.” In his briefing, White House press secretary Jay Carney triumphantly noted that there wouldn’t have been so much diplomatic progress absent the “credible threat” of force.

Never mind that Kerry punctuated the launch of his unintended Syria peace plan with the words “it can’t be done.” In a storm, any port will do, and during a catastrophic meltdown of an administration’s case for war, so will any diplomatic fig leaf.

Not all of Kerry’s gaffes in London rose to the level of game-changing diplomacy. He said the strike on Syria would be “unbelievably small.” Surely, Kerry was making another one of his rhetorical points — that compared with, say, Dresden or “Shock and Awe,” the strike on Syria would be a much more circumscribed affair. But “unbelievably small” is not a rallying cry.

An anonymous administration official resorted to an analogy to children’s cereal. As USA Today paraphrased his explanation: “If Assad is eating Cheerios, we’re going to take away his spoon and give him a fork. Will that degrade his ability to eat Cheerios? Yes. Will it deter him? Maybe. But he’ll still be able to eat Cheerios.”

A military strike to change Assad’s options in breakfast flatware is even less stirring than Kerry’s assurance of unbelievable smallness. At the beginning of what is supposed to be the administration’s full-court press for a strike, it has done more to open itself to mockery than to persuade, more to set back its case than to advance it.

Part of the problem, besides simple incompetence, is that the administration has dual, and conflicting, audiences. The president’s political base wants a strike to be as symbolic as possible, while the rapidly diminishing number of Republican supporters want it to be as robust as possible. Please one side and you alienate the other.

And then there’s the mismatch between rhetoric and means. The natural language of American warfare is highly moralistic and a little apocalyptic, which is why our enemies are always compared to Adolf Hitler. John Kerry said that Assad has joined Hitler in using poison gas. Senate majority leader Harry Reid invoked the Holocaust in his case for bombing. But if we are really confronted with such evil, why do we seek merely to “degrade” Assad’s capability before watching him continue his slaughter by means we find less outrageous?

The case for a strike comes down to a matter of national credibility that is more likely to move Henry Kissinger than the public. Voters are not in the mood for any more Middle Eastern entanglements, so the administration is performing before a hostile crowd. It’s always easier to look at the top of your communications game when you are not up against a howling headwind of public opposition.

If he’s not already, the president may soon wonder why, with the Syria vote, he built a pyre, threw his presidency on it, and asked Congress to decide whether to light a match. Considering the gravity of the possible defeat before him, any escape hatch can look attractive, even one provided by his secretary of state’s careless words.

— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: [email protected]. © 2013 King Features Syndicate

‘Unbelievably Small’
As the Obama administration gears up its full-court press to win congressional authorization for strikes against Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry appears to have stumbled badly when he described the strikes the administration is seeking as an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.”
The comment came during a press conference in London and followed a week of bellicose calls for strikes on the Assad regime and descriptions of the decision as a “Munich moment" for the U.S.
House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers was not amused. Said Rogers: “That’s a very confusing message — certainly a confusing message to me that he would offer that as somebody who believes this is in our national security interest.”
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), who has lobbied for more aggressive strikes on Syria, tweeted: “Kerry says #Syria strike would be “unbelievably small” — that is unbelievably unhelpful”
Kerry’s comment was meant to assuage concerns a U.S. strike would lead to another Middle East war. But it also fed the sense of a feckless administration dithering over strikes too small to be effective. Kerry’s comment drew immediate rebukes and the Twitter hashtag #UnbelievablySmall erupted with reactions. Here’s a look.
“Kerry says US strike may be ‘unbelievably small’ Now there’s a threat and a half. Don’t blink now” (@AletheiaLibya)
“Really get the sense that Kerry doesn’t believe in the Obama/Power case for strikes. He can’t stay on their msg because he doesn't buy it.” (@Max_Fisher)
“BREAKING: Obama to deploy the itsy bitsy spider for unbelievably small attack on Syria.” (@EWErickson)
“We'll be sending the #UnbelievablySmall GI Joe Happy Meal toy cruise missiles to Syria, I guess.” (@kankokage)
“Speak Softly and carry an #UnbelievablySmall stick” (@therealjavery)
“#UnbelievablySmall are the chances Susan Rice will have anything to say that even resembles the truth” (@SuperCoop2448)
“Is a Daily Show writer scripting the WH? This level of farce takes real practice.” (@michelefrost)
“#UnbelievablySmall The conscience of Democrats will to vote for war to protect Obama's ego” (@BattleSwarmBlog)
“#UnbelievablySmall: The number of House representatives foolish enough to vote "Yes" for starting a M.E. War.” (@VRWCTexan)
“Assad hears #UnbelievablySmall attack, will now call you #TickleMeBarack” (@TriciaNC1)
“Today Obama will explain that Bashar Assad is one of history's greatest monsters, so he must be hit with an ‘unbelievably small’ attack.” (@Doc_0)
“When ‘unbelievably small’ Kerry statement leads to jokes about ‘pulling out’ and ‘shrinkage,’ Obama has lost the #Syria debate.” (@Galrahn)
“#UnbelievablySmall America's Standing in the world - thanks to Obama.... and Kerry” (@VRWCTexan)
“How to start WWIII. Start an ‘unbelievably small war’ and wait.” (@DrAnnaClark)
“Hand over your chemical stockpile, Basher, or face the full might on an unbelievably small US attack" (@Heresy_Corner)
“If Assad responds to this “unbelievably small” attack w/another provocation, he better watch out bc Obama will launch a moderately small one” (@attackerman)
“Kerry Sees Unbelievably Small’ Strike but stops short of itsy bitsy or merely a teeny weenie one” (@mchasewalker)
“Technically, a B2 bomber-deployed B61 nuclear bomb is considered ‘small.’ #unbelievablysmall” (@jimgeraghty)
“Congratulations John have riled the entire world for something unbelievably small” (@arthur23)
“#UnbelievablySmall John Kerry’s gravitas.” (@office_chick)
“#UnbelievablySmall sounds like a good name for a John Kerry BioPic.” (@wupton)
“I heard tell John Kerry has an unbelievably small...” (@C3rvantes)
“All this drama, expenditure of international credibility, for an ‘unbelievably small attack,’ spoken by unbelievably small mind.” (@Ezra_Pownd)
“Kerry’s description of a precision strike: ‘unbelievably small’ - Must have been poll tested at a coffee shop poetry reading.” (@seanagnew)
“#UnbelievablySmall: Chances that Kerry pays Massachusetts taxes on his yacht” (@NatteringNinny)
“The US strike against #Syria will be ‘unbelievably small.’ You know. Like that rice shrapnel wound I got a medal for. — John Kerry” (@AugustusBeau)
“On ‘unbelievably small’ attacks: one option would be to just collectively think the thought at a cabinet meeting and be done with it.” (@calhounsmith)
“‘From Shock and Awe to Unbelievably Small’ would be a great title for a book.” (@billhobbs)
“Strike on Syria will be ‘unbelievably small.’ Much like the chances of this turning out well.” (@inthefade)
“#UnbelievablySmall First Lady’s school program entree sizes.” (@JungaSklee)
“The chance that you’ll get to keep your doctor with Obamacare. #UnbelievablySmall” (@TalkSouthRadio)
“John #UnbelievablySmall Kerry is no doubt drawing on all the Military Experience he garnered from his #UnbelievablyShort tour in Vietnam.” (#_EOD)
“Can something be ‘unbelievably small’ AND ‘just muscular enough not to get mocked?’ Asking for a friend.” (@mkhammer)
“Remember when Lincoln gave the moving Gettysburg Address about the #UnbelievablySmall Civil War?” (@PaulHsieh)
“If the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their most unbelievably small hour.” (@charlescwcooke)
“All we have to offer is an unbelievably small amount of blood, toil, tears and sweat.” (@davedwiegel)
“I will do such things. What they are, yet I know not. But they shall be unbelievably small. — Kerry's Lear.” (@Heresy_Corner)
“Now, witness the power of this fully-armed and #UnbelievablySmall battle station! — Emperor O-valtine” (@EricStrobel)
“Sun Tzu: ‘Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.’ Not by promising an ‘unbelievably small’ war.” (@JeffreyGoldberg)
“We will raze villages in a fashion reminiscent of of Genghis InKhansequential.” #UnbelievablySmall (@hale_razor)
“#UnbelievablySmall is more the #Benghazi response, which was unbelievably non-existent — before, during and one year after.” (@theygonnalose)
“I wish our federal government was #UnbelievablySmall” (@shaunj_107)
“#UnbelievablySmall what’s left of the Bill of Rights” (@javaguysammckee)
Updated: Sep. 09, 2013



Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

NRO Polls on LockerDome

Subscribe to National Review