The Cable

Key Senator Blasts White House For Mangling Syria Message

One of the Senate's most powerful Democrats has some advice for top Obama administration officials: take your collective feet out of your collective mouths when you're talking about Syria.

Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said recent comments by Secretary of State John Kerry and Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken undercut the Obama administration's negotiating position with Damascus and made it even harder for the White House to sell a war-weary American public on potential military strikes against Syria.

"There are a number of things that have been said that I think are not helpful at all, including some by Kerry," Levin told reporters today.

It's rare for White House allies to name names when critiquing the administration, and Levin's remarks appeared to reflect genuine frustration that the White House hadn't laid out a clearer and more consistent case for its Syria policy.  He was careful to praise Obama's personal handling of the Syria crisis, but Levin made clear that he felt the president hadn't always been well-served by his aides. 

Levin declined to specify which of Kerry's recent statements he found unhelpful, but later said he had a hard time figuring out how to square the secretary of state's assertion that a potential American assault on Syria would be "unbelievably small" with the administration's frequent promise that the strikes would be strong enough to significantly reduce Assad's chemical weapons stockpiles. Kerry's comment, Levin said, only made sense if the former senator was talking about the duration of the strikes rather than their severity. That interpretation would seem to be at odds with the plain meaning of Kerry's words.

"I admire anyone who can reconcile them," Levin said, laughing.

The confusion over the administration Syria policy began to ramp up last week, when Kerry refused to rule out sending U.S. ground troops into Syria to prevent chemical weapons from falling into terrorist hands, a comment that contradicted the White House's assurances that there would be no American "boots on the ground" in Syria.  Kerry spent the rest of the hearing reassuring senators that no combat forces would be dispatched there.

Kerry drew unwanted attention again on Monday with an off-handed comment that Assad could avoid a military strike if he gave up control of his chemical weapons.  State Department officials initially said he had simply been making a rhetorical argument, but the comment prompted Russian officials to call for putting Syria's chemical weapons under international control until they could be destroyed.  Damascus immediately said it could accept the deal, which is now at the center of fevered talks between top U.S. and Russian officials about its details and feasibility. 

Kerry himself has been a victim of the muddled White House messaging as much as a perpetrator, however. On Tuesday morning, he told a House panel that the administration didn't want Congress to delay a vote on legislation authorizing the use of force against Syria. Less than 12 hours later, Obama told the nation that he was doing just that, flatly contradicting his own secretary of state.

Republican Representative Peter King of Michigan said the administration had sold its Syria policy "horribly" and badly botched its overall messaging and lobbying efforts.

"The mixed messages of drawing a line in the sand and when it became time to pull the trigger to walk it back and then going to Sweden and saying it's not his red line and having Kerry say the strike would be 'unbelievably small,' was a disaster," he said.

King said the White House seemed to be aware of those shortcomings.  During a recent closed-door meeting, King recalled, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough "acknowledged that the message didn't work."

Caitlin Hayden, a White House spokeswoman, declined to comment on King's recollection of the meeting.  She said the current diplomatic maneuvering only came about because of the administration's threat to use force against Assad.

"Syria and Russia heard the message loud and clear that the president is serious about the prospect of taking military action to hold the regime responsible," she said.

If Levin is right, however, Damascus and Moscow may have been hearing different messages altogether.

Take the words of Tony Blinken, long one of Vice President Joe Biden's closest aides.   Blinken told NPR last week that Obama had no "intention" of striking Syria without Congressional approval even though the president believed he could do so unilaterally. The comment was widely interpreted as a sign that the administration wasn't fully committed to using force against Assad if Congress said no. Obama tried to walk back Blinken's comment a few hours later, but Levin suggested that the move was too late to prevent observers from concluding that Obama was waffling on a potential Syria strike and wasn't serious about his threats of carrying one out.

"I don't that was particularly helpful," Levin said, echoing his critique of Kerry - and really, of the entire administration. 

JIM WATSON/AFP/GettyImages

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