Ethics Quote Of The Month: Secretary Of State John Kerry


“…I’m proud of all the efforts we made to try to lead people to a peaceful resolution.”

John Kerry, in an interview on MSNBC, when asked if he had any regrets about the Administration’s handling of Syria;

The Sec. of State’s full answer:

Well again, Andrea, I’m going to have a lot of opportunities to be able to look back and digest what choices might have been made. I’m not going to do it now… Except to say to you, very clearly, that I’m proud of all the efforts we made to try to lead people to a peaceful resolution. And in fact, the only solution to Syria will be a peaceful agreement along the lines of what we laid out… and the several communiques that we issued, and the United Nations resolution that we passed. 2254. Those will be the basis for whatever happens, if they get there.

No, I’m not going to call Kerry’s statement an unethical quote, even as close as it came to making my head explode. Fortunately my expectations of John Kerry are basement-level low, from long experience. However, the latest fatuous sentiment from this veteran doofus is provocative and instructive.

In many pursuits, as we discuss here often, whether someone has done the right thing, made the ethical choice, should be evaluated on the basis of whether the conduct was competently considered and arrived at according to facts and ethical considerations before the conduct commenced. Judging its ethical nature  afterwards, when factors the decision-maker could not have foreseen or controlled have affected the result, is a fallacy: “It all worked out for the best” and thus the decision must have been ethical. This is consequentialism, and “the ends justifies the means” in its most seductive form.

A very recent example was the Republican leadership’s decision not to consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. No, the tactic wasn’t unconstitutional or illegal. It was unethical, however: obstructive, partisan politics defying tradition and fairness. It was also, as I pointed out at the time, stupid. When Obama, knowing of the GOP’s intent, appointed not a flame-breathing left-wing zealot but a moderate-liberal judge of impressive credentials, the GOP majority in the Senate should have rushed to confirm him, knowing well that a nomination by Obama’s presumed successor, Hillary Clinton, would unbalance the Court to a far greater degree.

The GOP lucked out, as we now know. Now President Trump will fill that vacancy on the Court, with major impact on important legal disputes for decades to come. That’s all moral luck, however. The ethics verdict on the conduct still stands. It worked, but it was wrong.

Success is not irrelevant to ethics, of course. Many jobs are ethically complex because getting a desired result is part of the mission. The result and the manner of achieving it are important. If your job is to win the war, you can’t say you did an excellent job if the war was lost. Competence is still an ethical value. A successful CEO’s company does not go belly-up by definition. Government is often analogized to sailing a ship to a destination, or flying a plane, with good reason. Part of the responsibility a government leader has is to make choices that work to the benefit of  those governed, and others as well. A captain whose ship sinks cannot say afterwards, “I did one hell of a job.”

Early in the Republican campaign for the presidential nomination, Jeb Bush was derailed by a “gotcha!” question forcing him to breach filial loyalty to demonstrate his own worthiness to lead. He was asked if now, after all that had transpired since President George W. Bush led the United States in an attack of Iraq, he agreed with his brother’s critics that it was “a mistake.”  Jeb could have schooled the news media on ethics by saying that the only fair question is whether the decision was a responsible and defensible one based on what was known at the time, and to that his  answer was “yes.” Obviously in hindsight, however well-intended and rationally-determined the decision was, it appears to have led to so many dire unintended consequences that Bush’s decision has to be assessed a disaster. That doesn’t necessarily mean it was the wrong decision or a mistake at the time it was made, though a leader is fully accountable for the results of his leadership, lucky or not.

Imagine, however, if Jeb, or even worse, George, had said, “I’m proud of what we did in Iraq!” Leaders can’t be proud of failure. Leaders who are proud of failure because it was achieved in a “good way” are delusional. Their job is to succeed, using ethical and legal means. Maybe interviewer Andrea Mitchell led Kerry into his offensive statement by whitewashing the facts, as MSNBC is prone to do when discussing Obama-led fiascos. She asked:

Five years. So many people dead. Displaced millions. The suffering. Russia, the game-changer, a year and some months ago entering with no warning, 24 hours after meeting personally with President Obama, Putin’s planes are flying over Syria for the first time. No warning at all to us. The Russian role has been so devastating in propping up Assad at a critical juncture. Any regrets? You expressed some that were in an overheard audio to some of the opposition leaders. Any regrets that we didn’t arm the rebels sooner, when there might have been a better opportunity?

“So many people dead.” By mid-December 2016, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported the number of children killed in the conflict had risen to 15,948, and the number women to 10,540. The over-all deaths on both sides appear to be somewhere in the vicinity of 400,000 (though with that estimate, the estimate for women and children seems low). You can never tell with Kerry, whose photo will hopefully accompany the entry for “bonehead” in future dictionaries, but maybe the actual numbers might have caused a tiny ethics alarm to go off in that impressive skull that reminded Kerry that expressing pride in the abject failure of U.S. efforts in Syria was not an appropriate response.

But this is the illness that has infected the Obama Administration, especially the President himself and his reality-challenged fans from the beginning. Intentions are what matter in Progressive World, not results. Intentions matter most even if the policies they generate are incompetent and deluded, and even if the results are objectively disastrous, as in Syria.

I tuned in “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” this morning to find him interviewing the President in a reflective assessment of his eight years. Obama had that smug and dreamy look he always carries in such affairs, and uttered one phrase–“we may not have accomplished everything we wanted to”-—before I had to switch channels. Good god. “We may not have accomplished everything we wanted to?

Obama is the first President since Herbert Hoover not to experience a single year of growth above three percent GDP. He has increased the already unsustainable national debt by about 40%. More able-bodied citizens have taken themselves out of the job market than ever before. Public education is rotting; college is both unaffordable and increasingly useless. U.S power and influence abroad is at its lowest ebb since the 1930s. Racial divisions are at their worst since the Sixties. Gender divisions are more toxic than at any time in history. Free speech is being eroded, especially on campuses. Health care costs continue to rise, and Obamacare is a mess. Illegal immigration is uncontrolled, and has become a more contentious issue than ever before. Public trust in government institutions is the lowest it has ever been, and the Democratic Party has less power nationwide that at any time since the 1920s.  And Donald Trump is about to take over.

What else did you want to accomplish, Mr. President?

I bet Obama’s proud, too.

7 thoughts on “Ethics Quote Of The Month: Secretary Of State John Kerry

  1. Perhaps if Mr. Kerry and President Obama are so proud of what they’ve done for Syria, they might grab Hillary Clinton and Samantha Powers, who also have the time available now, and schedule a little trip to that country to let the Syrian folks thank them personally. Just thinking, since they’re so proud and all.

  2. Jeb, like his brother isn’t the brightest bulb in the universe so he took the bait. Kerry, on the other hand, has been Obama’s lapdog and it’s not surprising that he spun the Middle East settlement into being a good thing. I hope that Kerry never runs for office again.

  3. My previous candidate for most evasive understatement: Emperor Hirohito announcing his surrender. “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”

    But even that seems more candid than, “We may not have achieved everything we wanted to.”

    • It would be helpful if we knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish. If he wanted to turn the United States into a second rate power. As some surmise he did. He accomplished it remarkably well.

    • I had never read the whole Hirohito speech until now. Ugh, what a whitewash attempt, which certainly makes me take another look at the 1989 farewell articles talking about a frail, gray-haired amateur entomologist. John Kerry’s response is more than a whitewash, it’s out and out willful ignorance of the facts a la Baghdad Bob. Leaders who refuse to process the facts honestly are probably the greatest danger of all: Pol Pot, Francisco Lopez, and of course Hitler, are all among them, and among the leaders who did the most damage. Saddam Hussein, Hugo Chavez, and Fidel Castro were also there, but thankfully couldn’t or didn’t do quite as much damage before their careers ended. I suppose we should be thankful that Obama wasn’t in a position to take us further or set himself up as a leader for life the way those men were.

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