Kerry Gaffes, But Maybe It's the Good Kind of Gaffe

| Mon Sep. 9, 2013 12:40 PM EDT

"I had honestly forgotten what a gaffe factory Kerry was," writes a friend, "but it seems like he's continuing on in his bold tradition of marching foot in mouth first." The damning gaffe, it turns out, was an off-the-cuff response to a reporter who asked if there was anything Bashar al-Assad could do to avoid an American military strike. "Sure," Kerry said dismissively, he could turn over his entire arsenal of chemical weapons this week. That would do it. "But he isn't about to do it," Kerry said, "and it can't be done, obviously."

As usual with these things, I don't actually see quite as big a gaffe as some others, even accounting for the fact that secretaries of state are supposed to be especiallycircumspect. It was obviously a sarcastic comment. However, Russia is pretending to take it seriously:

In Moscow, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, who was meeting with Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, said in response to Mr. Kerry’s remarks that Russia would join any effort to put Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons under international control and ultimately destroy them....Although Mr. Kerry appeared to treat the idea that Syria would give up its stockpile as improbable, Mr. Lavrov seized on it as a possible compromise that Russia was prepared to propose to the Syrians.

“We don’t know whether Syria will agree with this, but if the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in the country will prevent attacks, then we will immediately begin work with Damascus,” Mr. Lavrov said at the Foreign Ministry. “And we call on the Syrian leadership to not only agree to setting the chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also to their subsequent destruction.”

So was Kerry's statement a gaffe? In normal terms, sure. You don't toss out stuff like this without thinking about it, and most likely all it does is give Russia and Syria a handy excuse to play games for a while longer. However, in any terms more sophisticated than those of a five-year-old, it wasn't really much of a gaffe. Kerry's meaning was perfectly plain.

Still, what if the Russians aren't playing games, but are seizing an unanticipated opportunity? It's possible that for all their bluster, the Russians would actually like a way out of this that saves some face. It's also possible, if you believe the latest reports in Bild am Sonntag, that Assad never wanted last month's chemical attack to go forward in the first place. His generals did it without his go-ahead. So maybe he'd just as soon be rid of the stuff.

I doubt it. But it's at least an intriguing thought. If all of this ended up with some kind of UN inspection force taking control of Syria's chemical arsenal, that would be a pretty good outcome for everyone. And it would make Kerry's statement sort of the opposite of a Kinsley gaffe. Instead of a politician accidentally telling the truth, it would end up being a politician accidentally solving a real problem.

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