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The Facts of Life or the Will to Power?

Kerry on Syria

By Chip Carey

John Kerry: Political by Nature or Young Idealist?

When I heard John Kerry speak at Yale in the Fall of 1971, he was the spokesman for “Vietnam Veterans against the War” and had testified in Congress against that War. As a then freshman and member of the first college class in the history of the draft not eligible for college deferments, I agreed with his criticisms of the senseless war. Kerry’s eloquence was remarkable, almost too much so. The longtime Yale Debate Coach and History Professor Roland Osterweiss once said his two greatest team members were John Kerry, who graduated from Yale in 1966, and William F. Buckley, Jr. Osterweiss noted that Buckley was possibly the best, but only when he argued his own viewpoint. Apparently, John Kerry did not have that problem.

Given Kerry’s natural political ability to argue any side of a debate, it did not come as a surprise when during the question and answer period that followed his 1971 address, he was asked if he had any political ambitions. The former chairman of the Yale Liberal Party and future Secretary of State did not hesitate: “I have no definite plans at the moment, but I will keep my options open.” It would not be long until he was running for a variety of Massachusetts elected posts.

Fast forward to 2013 and Secretary Kerry is leading the charge to war against Syria. Intervention in Syria may not occur for various reasons, but one wonders why Kerry, who also called the military coup in Egypt ‘democratic,’ has been so interested in punishing Syria. Is this John Kerry the same Vietnam dove who waxed eloquently against Richard Nixon in 1971?

It is worth considering what really explains these shifts in priorities. On the one hand, it may be that the red line Kerry and Obama drew in Syria while maintaining their support for the military coup in Egypt reflect their genuine concern with atrocities committed by Syrian President Bashir Al-Assad and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. On the other hand, it is the Egyptian army that is killing citizens in Egypt, and President Assad’s military killing rebels in Syria. However there have been no public threats against the Egyptian Army from either Obama or Kerry, and the US threat to attack Syria was only in response to chemical weapons use, not the regime’s murders of Syrian Sunnis.

Will the real President Obama please stand up?

As a senator, Obama criticized US torture practices and wanted the Guantanamo Bay detention center closed. He ran for the Democratic presidential nomination on a platform of ending the war in Iraq and putting a stop to Bush era black-ops. Unfortunately, the administration continued sending individuals to other countries to be tortured, did not close the Guantanamo bay prison complex, and continued to fight wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya longer than promised. Now Obama threatens war in Syria without even hinting at an end game or any strategic goals other than punishing Syria and Iran for acquiring and developing weapons of mass destruction, and, in Syria’s case, allegedly using them.

As a senator, Barack Obama advocated limiting NSA bulk record collection, requiring government analysts to get court approval before they could access data incidentally collected from American citizens, requiring the executive branch to report to Congress how many American communications had been swept up during surveillance, restricting gag orders from surveillance court orders, public reports on how many people had been targeted for aggregate data searches, and declassifying surveillance court opinions that changed surveillance secrecy laws.

Evidently, as president, Obama has seen fit to reverse his opinion on all of these points. He has admitted, without any apparent irony, that the NSA is within its rights to spy on any American or non-American individual, and thanks to leaks from Edward Snowden, that the US is collecting not only meta data, but also the content of phone calls, emails, and other internet postings of US citizens while apparently threatening internet companies not to admit to this mandated cooperation with the systematic violation of privacy.

Maybe these revelations and apparent betrayals should surprise no one. After all, as Obama stated in a September 10th speech, the US is the leader of the free world and thus has to engage in some shadowy behavior: “My fellow Americans, for nearly seven decades the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements. It has meant enforcing them. The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world's a better place because we have borne them.” Essentially, counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism are a dirty business, given that the enemy does far worse than the US does.

What explains this apparent betrayal and loss of ideals by our government leaders? Does power corrupt, or does experience and access to intelligence cause them to change their opinions? We frequently assume the latter, that the realities of exercising power cause them to sober up.

Different Explanations or Interpretations

It could simply be that one feels that to fight for one’s ideals, it is sometimes better to be on the inside arguing for proper policies consistent with human rights and other ideals. Conceivably, there is much more information available to Obama and Kerry than to the normal person. Indeed, nothing comparable is available to Congressional leaders, such as Senate Intelligence Chairperson Diane Feinstein, who merely accepted and repeated the noxiously naïve assertion that US Drone strikes have not killed civilians except in the single digits.

Among those who don’t get their metaphorical feet wet, the argument is more apt to be that people sell-out, or at least become more conservative with age and power.  Princeton academic and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman writing about The Conscience of a Liberal, , criticizes these ex-idealists for not having any heart.

Alternatively, it might be Nietzche’s dictum of the “will to power” that leads to cynical shifts in positions. Something akin to Lord Acton’s dictum that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Hannah Arendt suggested that evil can be systematically banal, motivated by benign careerism, which blinded some ambitious US politicians to the reality of what they think they are doing. In other words, Groupthink among a few decision-makers allows them to ignore the hard questions when someone’s political future is at stake.

If the motives are benign, perhaps Georges Clemenceau had it right when he declaimed, “Anyone who is not a socialist at age 20 has no heart; anyone who is not a conservative at 50 has no brain.” To put it less harshly, the dilemmas perceived by our leaders are accentuated not by the moral purpose of their youth, but by the reality of having to make choices in a complicated world. However, if leaders like Kerry and Obama are going to rise to the promise of their youths, then the public should continue to demand that they provide the rationale behind their decisions. In slowing down the race to Syria, the public has shown that the democratic check on elderly ambition can, at least, be stalled by the prudence of youthful idealism.

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Chip Carey is Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University and is author or editor of many books, including Dilemmas of NGO Peacebuilding (Palgrave), as well as the editor of United Nations Law Reports.

(photo courtesy of US Department of State)

 

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