Early Wednesday evening in New York, a few hours after Russia's intervention force in Syria began bombing targets on the ground, Secretary of State John Kerry did something odd: He gave a joint statement with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The two men, standing shoulder to shoulder somewhere in the United Nations building, said they were working to, as Lavrov put it, Kerry nodding along at his side, "establish channels of communications to avoid any unintended incidents" between their militaries in Syria, as well as work on the "political process" for resolving Syria's war.
They didn't say much. But the event spoke volumes, and probably not in ways that the United States wants, intended, or will find helpful.
This press conference was a bad idea
The statement was brief, vague, and unnecessary. Kerry, though he is known as spectacularly talented in behind-the-scenes negotiations, can be clumsy when it comes to managing on-camera stagecraft. But this was more than just bad stagecraft — it was a real mistake, one that could be have consequences that, while not world-changing, go beyond mere optics.
The image of Kerry nodding alongside Lavrov, the two of them discussing their efforts to "deconflict" in Syria, lent, however unintentionally, the appearance of an American stamp of legitimacy on Russia's Syria intervention. It will be difficult for the Obama administration to shake the appearance that it's decided to accept Russia's intervention and to deem it as legitimate.
That's more than just a gaffe when the entire world is watching to see how the United States handles Russia's Syria strikes and is waiting to take — or not take — America's cue.
Giving even a slight impression that the US is okay with Russian actions has policy consequences for how other countries will respond, for how it is perceived by the populations in the region, for how people in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere come to view American intentions and behavior in the region.
That would be one thing if America's official position were in fact to acknowledge Russia's strikes as a legitimate intervention and to treat it as a legitimate partner. But the Obama administration has seemed awfully careful to avoid exactly that impression. It's part of why senior administration officials, speaking on and off the record to reporters, have made a point to disparage Russia's role as counterproductive and damaging. It's why President Obama, in his Monday UN speech, said he would consider working with Russia in Syria, but made sure to surround his one-line offer with a dozen or so paragraphs shitting on Putin and everything he's ever done in Syria (not to mention in Ukraine and in Russia itself).
It was a balance the administration was working carefully to maintain: We'll hear the Russians out, but we're wary and skeptical, we believe they're a big part of the problem, and we think they're a long way from responsible actors in Syria. Kerry has just upset that balance by giving the appearance of treating Lavrov and thus Russia as an acknowledged partner, the two of them working together on a hard problem.
As Foreign Policy's David Kenner quipped, "[The] US has really done a remarkable job convincing Russia/Iran it supports Syria's opposition, and the opposition that it supports Russia/Iran."
What they actually said: not very much
"We all want Syria democratic, united, secular," Lavrov said, Kerry nodding, "but we have some differences as to the details of how to get there. But we agreed on some steps we would undertake very soon."
Kerry followed up with his own statement, beginning, "Sergei has described a meeting that we had which we would both concur was a constructive meeting." He reiterated American "concerns" about "the nature of the targets" (Russia says it is bombing ISIS, but appears to in fact be bombing Syrian opposition groups that fight ISIS).
Kerry added they would seek a "military-to-military deconfliction discussion, meeting, conference, whichever can be done as soon as possible" as well as "options" to "address the conflict itself." It would all be "further discussed," and "we will follow up on that for certain."
It sounded like they were mostly promising more hazy (and almost certainly doomed) talks on finding a political settlement to end Syria's war, as well as coming information on how the US and Russia would avoid accidental conflict as their respective air forces bombed Syria. And fair enough; whatever you think of Russia's intervention in Syria, a midair collision or mistaken exchange of fire between two nuclear powers is always worth avoiding. And as doomed as political talks likely are, it's worthwhile to at least keep the door open.
But none of that information needed to be conveyed in a joint Kerry-Lavrov statement. And it was the image of them standing side by side, nodding along as they discussed their agreements and their shared agenda, that spoke by far the loudest.
This is John Kerry at his worst
Kerry's talents and contributions as secretary of state should not be forgotten. Only he could have secured the Iran nuclear deal, hammered out over countless all-night sessions that went so long many observers considered the deal dead in the water before the negotiators emerged not just with a deal, but with a deal that is remarkably favorable to the US.
That was Kerry at his best. This is Kerry at his worst: clumsy with stagecraft, sending mixed messages, too willing to look chummy with negotiating partners who nonetheless represent hostile adversaries, and, I feel reasonably safe presuming, disconnected from the rest of the administration and its messaging.
We last saw this Kerry, most infamously, also in the context of Russia and Syria. It was almost exactly two years ago when he made an offhand remark saying the US wouldn't launch its threatened airstrikes against Syria, meant to punish Bashar al-Assad for gassing his own people, if Assad gave up his chemical weapons. Russia shrewdly seized on the comment to push for an agreement doing exactly that.
But it hadn't just been that one comment. For weeks, in trying to publicly sell Congress and Americans on the Syria strikes, Kerry had strayed off message, exaggerated the administration's case, made some unconvincing historical analogies, and even entertained strange hypotheticals. He called it a "Munich moment" one day and, the next, promised any US action would be "unbelievably small."
He wasn't just off-message, he was seemingly unlinked from the administration itself. A year later, as the White House came under growing pressure to shake up its foreign policy team, this embarrassing detail appeared in the New York Times:
Mr. Kerry is vocal and forceful in internal debates, officials said, and gets credit for putting together the coalition of Arab states that conducted military strikes in Syria. But he often seems out of sync with the White House in his public statements. White House officials joke that he is like the astronaut played by Sandra Bullock in the movie "Gravity," somersaulting through space, untethered from the White House.
It seems plausible that with Kerry's unnecessary and unhelpful joint statement with Lavrov today, there are going to be some administration officials, perhaps in the White House itself, who once again look at their secretary of state and see a man somersaulting helplessly through the abyss.