This afternoon's Senate hearing of Secretary Kerry was a spectacle displaying American government at something like its best, in character if not in wisdom or efficiency. The thing you noticed immediately were the silent protesters holding antiwar signs behind the Secretary of State, who had come before the committee to advocate for war against the self-styled Islamic State, throughout the hearing. Remarkably, they were not removed and Kerry, long ago an anti-war protester himself, went to the trouble of addressing them. His address was unlikely to convince them -- predictably, he emphasized the IS's systemic misogyny to refute arguments against war from Code Pink, a female-directed protest group. Certainly Kerry must recall that in his youth the warmongers of the time warned of the atrocities to be committed on all freedom-loving people by Communists, and as a soldier in Vietnam he no doubt saw Communist atrocities close up. Yet he turned against the Vietnam War and appeared before the Senate not merely as a protester or heckler but as a witness to make the case that the war then being waged was not the answer to whatever threat the Viet Cong represented. Does he think the women of Code Pink are ignorant of Islamist misogyny, of reports of rape and enslavement? They are not so clueless, surely, yet as Kerry believed about Vietnam more than forty years ago, they believe now that an air war against ISIS won't solve the problems it feeds upon. That someone must stop the IS as a matter of humane principle no one disputes; how it is to be done, and by whom, are questions that should be asked without presumptions of naivete or cowardice from those being questioned.
With Code Pink waving signs behind him, Kerry was literally in the middle when questioned by Senator McCain, who used an American ambassador to Syria as a kind of human shield while he spouted his characteristic insanity. He relayed (in fact, previewed) the ambassador's report from the Free Syrian Army, i.e. the "good" rebels in that country, that they considered their government, the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, a greater threat than ISIS. McCain then questioned the priorities of Kerry and President Obama; why adopt an "ISIL first" strategy when the real priority, at least as far as McCain is concerned, is to put the Free Syrian Army in power, or at least to replace the Assad government? The Arizonan wants the Obama administration to order airstrikes against Assad in order to prevent the dictator from bombing the "good" rebels, while Kerry struggled to nudge McCain toward a more "confidential" discussion of the nation's Syria strategy. McCain represents those Americans who want no power in Syria except one that'll be friendly toward the U.S., if not also toward America's friends. If anything, it appeared more important to him to topple Assad than to destroy the IS. Fortunately, his position isn't even necessarily representative of Republicans. Sen. Paul noted during his turn with Kerry that had we bombed Assad last year, ISIS might well have taken all Syria by now. On the other hand, many avowed liberals share this dangerous impulse to destroy all dictators. This sort of fanaticism needlessly complicates the crafting of a true international coalition against the IS. There really does seem to be a consensus that ISIS needs to be destroyed; there obviously isn't a consensus that Assad must go. The Iranians, Russians and others will not accept that outcome. We can call them all a bunch of authoritarian poopyheads, or we can make a grown-up decision to do one thing or another -- the thing nearly everyone agrees with or the thing many refuse. Even then, it's one thing to agree with the world about destroying ISIS, and another, just as important, to consult with the Senate and the American people -- with Congress and Code Pink -- before committing resources to that mission. No one wants the IS to win on any front, as far as I know, but we still need to decide what it's worth to us, and to the rest of the world, to stop them.