John Kerry’s Silly Play
The secretary of state prattles about imaginary treaties while the Arab world is engulfed by a Sunni-Shia civil war
Secretary of State John Kerry says that’s it’s now or never for Israelis and Palestinians to reach agreement on a two-state solution. Interestingly, neither Israeli nor Palestinian officials have any idea what Kerry is talking about. With the Arab Spring uprisings tilting the Middle East status quo on behalf of Israel’s enemies, Jerusalem is not about to give up the West Bank—nor is the Palestinian Authority in any position to defend it. Little wonder then that an Israeli official recently told Haaretz, that Kerry “looks like a naive and ham-handed diplomat.”
But of course, Kerry’s public statements have little connection to workable diplomacy. Rather, the secretary of state is the leading man in a theatrical production about American Middle East policy whose only audience members, at this point, are Beltway pundits. In the real world, what matters are the chips you lay on the table—and whether you are willing to bet. Having exited Iraq, packed up our gear in Afghanistan, abandoned our “red lines” about Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s use of chemical weapons, America has gone from player to kibitzer.
Consider Kerry’s other regional initiative: yet another peace process that seems entirely detached from realities on the ground. Kerry wants to convene an intra-Syrian peace conference, in tandem with Russia, sometime in June—with the goal of putting representatives of Bashar al-Assad’s regime together at the same table with the opposition forces determined to topple him. Since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, more than 70,000 people have been killed, according to conservative estimates. To spectators in the balcony seats, the nauseating extent of the bloodshed might signal that the Syrians have had enough of death and want to get back to their lives.
But there are other, perhaps more instructive metrics. Last week, a video was released showing a rebel commander named Abu Sakkar eating what he believed to be the heart—it was actually the lung—of a regime loyalist. This gesture, apparently the first recorded act of ritual cannibalism in the Syrian civil war, suggests that the country’s sectarian furies are only now starting to reach a fever pitch—one that may well burn for many years to come. It is only when people tire of slaughtering their neighbors and eating them, and others are in turn tired of being slaughtered by their neighbors and being eaten, that they are ready to sit down and talk about peace.
Kerry’s efforts to broker peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the Assad regime and its opponents, will obviously come to nothing. Being an experienced politician, Kerry may even have some inkling that his plans have no connection to reality. The reality in which he moves is too grim to present as the public face of American diplomacy: President Barack Obama is not obviously prepared to invest his own prestige in an Israel-Palestinian peace process that is doomed to fail. Nor is Obama any more inclined now than he was two years ago, when the Syrian uprising began, to throw his weight behind any policy that will actually bring about Assad’s fall. Under the circumstances, Kerry’s love of theater may actually be the least bad option for a man with the misfortune to have his lifelong ambition for higher office gratified at exactly the wrong time.
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But Kerry’s fate is worth considering more closely for what it tells us about the current state of America’s Middle East policy and, more specifically, what it tells us about the job of secretary of state, which over the last few administrations has become less about implementing policy than about burnishing the intellectual and policy credentials of political celebrities who for whatever reason require a larger stage, but who then find themselves stuck knee-deep in the Big Muddy of America’s failed attempts to change the Middle East.
George W. Bush’s two secretaries of state distinguished themselves only by distancing themselves from the president’s major foreign-policy initiative, the Iraq War. Instead of resigning from Bush’s Cabinet in protest against a war he now says he thinks was a mistake, Colin Powell bit his tongue—until he left the administration and tried to clean the mud off his boots by taking shots at his former colleagues, who couldn’t answer back. Condoleezza Rice convened an Arab-Israeli peace conference at Annapolis in order to distract attention from the fact that she was now the one who was supposed to be in charge of Iraq. Hillary Clinton—who undoubtedly remembered what happened to her peace-maker husband at Camp David—eschewed Israeli-Palestinian peace conferences and other rote American diplomatic stagecraft for the pleasures of being garlanded with flowers at a record number of international airports.
As chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Kerry was known in D.C. as the man who had Assad on his speed-dial. Now he has the unpleasant task of explaining that Assad is actually a butcher but his boss won’t do anything to stop him. So, what should he do with the rest of his term in office that might be more rewarding? At the very least, a secretary of state should be able to give both the president and the American public a clear picture of what is happening in the world and where American interests may lie. At present, Kerry might instruct us that this picture looks something like this:
The Middle East is currently being torn apart by the Sunni-Shia conflict, a bloody religiously inflected war for regional dominance. This war is not an ideological construct of the kind that political scientists like to use in order to group a variety of disparate phenomena under a single subject heading. It’s a deadly shooting war, whose many campaigns include not only Iraq’s ongoing civil war, but the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s, which pitted the Sunni standard-bearer, Saddam Hussein, against the self-styled Persian revolutionaries of Shiite Iran. Today, the main theater of this conflict is Syria, where Assad’s minority regime, drawn from a heterodox Shia sect known as the Alawites, has called in reinforcements from Hezbollah, a Shiite militia in Lebanon, as well as Iran, all together comprising a bloc vying for regional hegemony with the Sunni powers—especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey.
Why is a Jewish group dedicated to tolerance honoring a politician who has failed to support religious minorities?