John Kerry''s speech was well tailored, to use a phrase that has become popular to describe the US attack on Syria still in the stages of planning or political buffering as I write this. He identified a number of countries that were supporting the US initiative, without mentioning Britain, Germany, and Italy which have pointedly abstained. He raised some hackles here with "It matters to our security and the security of our allies. It matters to Israel. It matters to our close friends Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon – all of whom live just a stiff breeze away from Damascus."
The sentence break between "Israel" and "our close friends Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon" will feed into the Israeli suspicion that neither Kerry nor Obama view us as close friends.
Kerry said time and again that the evidence was clear that the Assad regime was responsible for the immoral use of chemical weapons, without tying their use to the very top of that regime. From others, we hear about intercepted communications indicating that the very top was not involved. It is not clear whether that reflects a conscious effort at deniability, or indications of a rogue action somewhere in the chain of command.
The most attractive element in Kerry''s speech, from an Israeli perspective, is that a lack of US action will send a signal to Iran that it can pursue the development of nuclear weapons.
Against that, however, were the several parts of the speech that indicated that the US action will be little more than a rap on the knuckles, rather than a serious military engagement. Assad may be able to absorb the rap on the knuckles, and the failure to do more will signal to Iran that it can continue its development of nuclear weapons with nothing more than a rap on their knuckles from the international community.
The discussion among Israeli commentators after the speech featured several expressions of the view that the use of chemical weapons was indeed a moral outrage, and as clear a violation of international law as could be imagined.
Other participants were not entirely convinced that the deaths of what the Americans are saying were 1,429, including 426 children, differ substantially from the more than 100,000 who have died from other means.
None of the Israeli commentators speaking grandly about international law raised what is a divisive issue here, i.e., that Israel itself is widely viewed in violation of international law by the settlement of 600,000 Jews on lands occupied as a result of military action.
While a considerable number of Israelis accept the guilty verdict declared by others, many more--including all governments since 1967--accept the view that using the term "illegal" for all Israelis living beyond the 1949 armistice lines is more a statement of political convenience than any result of weighing fairly the complex legal and moral issues.
Which raises some knotty question of law, international and otherwise.
The Israeli commentators discussing Kerry''s speech were speaking from a cultural tradition whose rabbinical ancestors decided some 2300 years ago that the clear language of the Torah concerning death penalties for a number of transgressions should not be read as they appear. There was that other law about murder, and another about false witness. What to do when the multiplicity of laws pose problems? And when to be certain enough about the guilt of a party to impose a sentence that is irrevocable?
Discussion rather than single minded decision-making is inherent in the wisdom developed by the rabbis who contributed to the Talmud, as well as numerous others who produced the streams of thought that make up what is admirable in western tradition.
To date, the widest discussion about an attack on Syria by a body charged with policymaking among western democracies occurred in the British House of Commons, whose result did not gain mention in John Kerry''s Friday speech.
Prominent in the House of Commons discussions was the fear of making errors like those involved in Iraq, consisting of going to war as the result of faulty intelligence, and creating greater mayhem that existed before the attack by Americans and others. If Saddam Hussein was a cruel dictator with little regard for human life, one must recognize that the incidence of deaths in Iraq since the invasion of 2003 has dwarfed whatever numbers were attributed to his regime. To be sure, Saddam also had something to do with an enormous number of deaths by Iranians and Iraqs due to warfare, and had to be driven out of Kuwait, but no one should express pride for a job well done due to his removal.
The Economist does not approve of what came from the House of Commons
"FOR those who like to believe that Britain is largely a force for good in the world—a vigorous upholder of the rules-based international order, a country with a proud record of being willing to use its resources (whether economic or military) in defence of universal humanitarian values and a stalwart ally—the result of last night’s House of Commons vote on the principle of military action against Syria was both shocking and shaming."
There is no better summary of the doubts about what appears to be the intentions of the American President and Secretary of State than an article in the Washington Post. It details reservations expressed by a number of US military officers with wide experience in intelligence, planning, and operations, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey..
Guesses here are that the American government has gone beyond the stage of discussion and is set on an attack. Kerry''s speech suggests that the American people will be given time to digest the facts as he presented them. We hear that the order to go will occur within a day or two. Whether it is as well tailored, limited, and without prospects of further involvement, as claimed, will only be apparent with time. Likewise, whether it sends an appropriate message to Bashar al-Assad, and other problematic regimes in Iran and North Korea.
Meanwhile, the IDF is preparing for whatever Assad sends in our direction, and families are scrambling to obtain gas masks and prepare their shelters.
We should be hoping for the best, even if we do not expect it.