The press briefing at the Foreign Office was a routine affair, a photo-opportunity for the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, to show that the Anglo-American special relationship was not in tatters after all by standing alongside the visiting US Secretary of State, John Kerry. The question to Kerry, from Margaret Brennan of CBS, was one of those journalistic afterthoughts, tacked on to the end of a long-winded demand for a response to yet another Syrian denial of culpability: “And secondly, is there anything at this point that [Assad’s] government could do or offer that would stop an attack?”
“Sure.” John Kerry’s reply was unhesitating. “He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that.” Then, a snort of dismissal: the busy statesman was evidently impatient with this line of speculation. “But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”
Kerry had misspoken. Did he realise immediately? Everybody else did. What was obvious to him was by no means so to the Russians and their clients in Damascus. Why wouldn’t Assad do it, and why couldn’t it be done? Hey presto — a diplomatic démarche! Before Washington had even woken up, a new Russian peace initiative was on the table, intended to delay any US attack until the Greek Kalends. From the Kremlin came the sound of popping corks; from the State Department at Foggy Bottom, the sound of gnashing of teeth; from the Pentagon, the sound of orders countermanded; from the Sixth Fleet off the Syrian coast, the sound of retreat; from Assad’s bunker, the sound of “Allahu Akhbar!”
And from the White House? Silence — or was that a sigh of relief? President Obama had been looking for weeks for a way out of launching an unpopular punitive action. Congress had supplied a reason for delay, but a congressional veto would make the President look weak. Obama needed another excuse to jaw-jaw rather than war-war. So he was secretly gratified by the Russian initiative — authorship of which was retrospectively claimed by Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, to great applause in Warsaw. Nobody seemed to pay much attention to the victims of the Syrian civil war: the dozens of towns reduced to rubble, the thousands of corpses, the millions of refugees. While the diplomats and inspectors talked, the war would go on.
What did all this remind me of? The fall of the Berlin Wall, of course. When on November 9, 1989, the East German government spokesman Günter Schabowski unexpectedly announced on live television that people would be allowed to travel to the West, he was bombarded with questions. Asked when the new policy would come into effect, he rustled his papers, evidently uncertain, and answered: “As far as I know . . . immediately, without delay.” I was standing a few yards away from Schabowski and asked my question: “Mr Schabowski, what will happen to the Berlin Wall now?” Nobody had mentioned the Wall up to that point, and Schabowski may have realised at this point that he had gone beyond his brief. He had no answer, because once the Wall was open, there was no rational justification for dividing the city, the country, or indeed Europe. Schabowski began by bringing his torment to an end: “This is the last question, ja!” To give himself time to think, he repeated my question, stuttered and sweated. “The question of travel, er, the permeability of the Wall from our side, does not answer the question of the meaning of this, as I would put it, fortified state border of the GDR.” He went on for another paragraph about arms control, before bringing the press conference to a close.
By this time it was obvious that, if Schabowski’s announcement was correct, then the Wall had suddenly lost its raison d’être. Word spread like wildfire among East Berliners, who began to arrive at the checkpoints and demanding to be let through. The border guards had no orders and eventually they let the crowds through — without visas or passports, as had been envisaged by the Politburo. The game was up and within days the demolition of the Wall had begun. Some 20 years later, Schabowski admitted that his role had been “involuntary” and that as a committed Communist he had been trying to save the East German regime, not bring it to an end.
The gaffe that prematurely opened the Berlin Wall was of course welcomed across the world. John Kerry’s blunder has not had a comparable impact, but it has still changed the course of history. At the time of writing, the Secretary of State has yet to admit any responsibility for the reversal of US policy. He is famously a big man, but not, apparently, big enough to shoulder the blame. Instead, he is now engaged in a protracted negotiation with his rather brighter Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, which may give the Assad regime the breathing space it requires to win the civil war. And all because one man couldn’t keep his mouth shut. As Tennyson put it, someone had blundered. And that someone is John Kerry.