Seven days ago, US Secretary of State John Kerry gave a joint press conference with William Hague on the Syrian Crisis. Margaret Brennan, a correspondent for America’s CBS News, asked Mr Kerry two questions, and the second will most likely prove to be the most important question of 2013.
After a fairly hard-hitting question about America’s evidence for chemical weapons and the USA’s integrity after the Bush-Cheney debacle over Iraq’s alleged WMDs, she said:
“Is there anything at this point that his government could do or offer that would stop an attack?”
“Sure. 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 a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.” (Read the full transcript here.)
He appeared to speak hastily, responding off the cuff, and afterwards his aides told the assembled journalists that he had responded to what was a hypothetical question; it did not reflect a possible reality. Another US official went further, speaking to another US news network CNN, commenting that Kerry’s words constituted a “major goof,” and that the Secretary “clearly went off script.”
Though both the American and Russian governments have since claimed that they discussed this option at the G20 Summit a week earlier, it is likely that Ms. Brennan’s timely question caught the Secretary off-guard and opened a diplomatic window at a time when US President Obama and his Republican allies were closing as many doors as possible and pushing for strikes despite overwhelming public opinion against military action.
Since Kerry uttered his ‘gaffe heard ’round the world’, there has been a diplomatic frenzy of activity — particularly from Russia — which has resulted in Syria agreeing to surrender its chemical arsenal AND join the global Convention on Chemical Weapons as early as 14 October of this year. The Syrian regime even claims being stripped of its weapons is a ‘victory’ for the country. Having hitherto denied possessing chemical weapons, Assad’s government cannot seriously expect anyone to be impressed by this claim. It is worth remembering that only one week ago, Assad himself had implied that he or certain unidentified groups would hit back and “expect every action” against any America strikes. It looked like war – or at least some kind of destructive intervention – was inevitable.
Whether or not you believe the White House had planned this diplomatic solution, or Russia achieved the agreement out of the goodness of its heart, or the Syrian regime really are celebrating the loss of a gigantic arsenal of weaponry and a degree of their sovereignty, one thing remains: none of this would have happened without Margaret Brennan’s question.
It was the right question at the right time because it resulted in accidental diplomacy which has averted a war which might, just might, have turned the Middle East, North Africa and South-Eastern Europe into an irradiated cemetery.