Here’s a sobering thought: A story filed by Jeffrey Goldberg offering a behind-the-curtain peek at administration deliberations over Syria suggests that Secretary of State John Kerry is the most hawkish member of the president’s cabinet.
According to Goldberg’s sources, Kerry argued “vociferously” for airstrikes against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s airfields, as a minimum response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.
The reaction from the Pentagon was a stone wall of negatives—and understandably so. Not only is the Pentagon stretched by global commitments and pinched by sequestration cuts; intervening in Syria’s civil war is fraught with risk. Indeed, reasonable people can and do disagree about the merits, wisdom and necessity of getting directly involved in what opponents of intervention see as a war between Hezbollah and al Qaeda—one recalls what then-Senator Harry Truman said as Stalin’s Soviets and Hitler’s Nazis slugged it out—and what advocates of intervention see as an Iranian proxy war, a preventable Bosnia-style bloodletting, a struggle for freedom, a test of U.S. leadership.
The purpose here is not to open a new front in that debate, but rather to contemplate what it says about an administration to have John Kerry as its main—lone?—cabinet-level hawk.
Recall that Senator John Kerry opposed virtually every key weapons program Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush requested or deployed. Peter Huessy of GeoStrategic Analysis noted during Kerry’s presidential run that in his 1984 campaign against Paul Tsongas, Kerry “proposed that the United States cancel or cut back the F-15 [and] F-14 tactical fighter planes; the B-1 and B-2 bombers; the Peacekeeper missile; the Trident submarine; the Aegis cruiser; the Abrams tank, the Apache helicopter, and the Tomahawk cruise missile.”
In 1990, Kerry voted against the M-1 Abrams battle tank, which liberated Kuwait a year later and liberated Iraq 13 years later. He voted to kill the B-2 bomber, which reversed Milosevic’s pogrom in Kosovo and then helped liberate Afghanistan and Iraq. And he opposed spending on ballistic missile defenses.
According to Huessy, Kerry “voted 34 times against higher defense spending” and in 1995 “supported cutting some $34 billion from defense…while calling for a freeze for the next seven years.”
Speaking of freezes, in the 1980s, Kerry supported the nuclear freeze movement; today, he embraces the Global Zero movement’s goal of worldwide nuclear disarmament, with America jumping first into the nuclear-deterrent-free unknown.
In his 2004 presidential campaign, Kerry was deeply critical of the war in Iraq. At one point he even voted against an $87-billion spending measure for troops deployed in combat, though he was quick to point out, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”
His strongest line of criticism centered on the younger Bush’s failure to gain UN permission for the war. He often talked about the importance of employing “the remedies of the United Nations and go[ing] through that full process.”
“What we need now,” Candidate Kerry declared, “is a president who understands how to bring these other countries together to recognize their stakes in this.”
Of course, it pays to recall that when the elder Bush asked for congressional authorization to liberate Kuwait on the eve of the 1991 Gulf War—a war approved by the UN, a diplomatic effort that brought all the key countries together—Kerry’s answer was “no.”
And this is the closest thing to a hawk on President Barack Obama’s cabinet. It’s a dramatic change from the first term, during which the hard-nosed Robert Gates—who held key defense and intelligence posts for Reagan and in both Bush administrations—served as defense secretary; Leon Panetta—who bluntly and unapologetically said of the struggle against jihadism, “There’s no question this is a war”—served as CIA director and defense secretary; the hawkish Hillary Clinton served as secretary of state; and Gen. David Petraeus—architect of the surge that salvaged America’s mission in Iraq—served as CIA director.
Even so, the signs were always there—even during the first term—that the president was not comfortable with the hawks and their 9/11 mentality:
Long before his new peacetime cabinet was in place, the president tortuously declared “it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan” before vowing—in the very same breath—that “after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.” In other words, America’s vital interests in 2009 had an expiration date.
Speaking of expiration dates, when the White House grudgingly agreed to extend operations early in NATO’s 2011 air war over Libya (after an urgent request from France and Britain), a NATO official took pains to emphasize that the extension of U.S. air power “expires on Monday.”
The president—in the middle of a hot war—slashed defense spending, even as spending on virtually every other government program ballooned. He talked about focusing on “nation-building here at home”; tried to convince the American people and their allies that America could “lead from behind”; ignored the advice of his own generals and withdrew a just-in-case residual force from Iraq; whittled America’s post-9/11 approach to security from an all-encompassing “global war on terror” to a series remote-control raids micro-targeting individuals in Yemen and Pakistan; and repeatedly insisted that the “tide of war is receding.”
Secretary Kerry would seem to disagree.
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