(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Mahmoud Zayat/AFP/Getty Images, Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images, and Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images.)

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.

In turn, the Sunni states are backing the Sunni Arab majority in Syria, pouring in money and arms. If some of their assets are unsavory characters affiliated with al-Qaida, the reality is that, absent the United States, the Gulf Arabs have no other security pillar to protect and advance their interests.

The Sunnis are of two minds about the conflict: They both welcome it insofar as they see it as the realization of a historical dream to put down the upstart Shia once and for all. The Sunnis also fear the conflict. They believe that the Syria campaign may be even more dangerous and destabilizing than the Iran-Iraq war, which—terror attacks aside—was largely restricted to a relatively limited field of battle between the borders of those two countries. The current enactment of the Sunni-Shia war, on the other hand, threatens to extend to everywhere in the Middle East where the two sects live in close proximity to each other. Sectarian violence in Iraq has picked up as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki further consolidates his power and the Sunnis are fighting back. Earlier in the week, 70 people were killed in car bombings and shootings in Baghdad in a round of violence that may augur a return to the worst sectarian fighting since the country’s barely averted civil war under the American military occupation. Now that the Americans are gone, communal violence between Sunnis and Shia is likely to escalate.

In Lebanon it seems that neither the Iranians nor the Saudis have an interest at present in opening another front. Tehran believes that Hezbollah firmly controls Lebanon and there is no reason to risk that control while Hezbollah fighters are pouring into Syria to give Assad’s depleted forces a breather. Riyadh also wishes to focus its efforts on Syria. But who knows how long the Lebanese will continue to cross the border to fight each other when they can save on car and bus fare, sleep in their own beds, and fire RPGs at each other at home?

So, what does any of this have to do with America, besides the fact that no one likes seeing footage of dead babies on YouTube? Why not, as some argue, let the Sunni and Shia kill each other until they get tired of killing? For the United States, the gravest danger of the Sunni-Shia war is that it might spread to the Persian Gulf, which remains a fulcrum of the global economy.

The possibility that the fires that are burning in Syria and Iraq might spread to the Gulf gets more real by the day. Bahrain, an oil-rich country ruled by Sunnis, has a restive Shiite majority. Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority inhabits the country’s oil-rich eastern province. The Sunni rulers of the Gulf States appear to relish the opportunity to take on Iran and the Shia, especially in Syria, the historical homeland of the first Arab empire, the Umayyad dynasty. Without Washington on the spot to rein in Arab triumphalism, the Saudis are likely to over-estimate their power, causing damage not only to themselves, but also the global economy and therefore vital American interests.

Obama might not see the Iranian nuclear program as a very big problem—it’s not the Soviet Union after all. His apparent focus on al-Qaida rather than on Iran as America’s major strategic threat may suggest he believes that, in the long-run, the Shia, as a regional minority, are a better match for American values and interests than the Sunni majority, whose millennia-long domination of the Shia has given rise to the sectarian supremacism that in turn gave rise to al-Qaida. There are good reasons, in other words, for America to stay out of the Sunni-Shia civil war. What a good secretary of state should be telling the president right now is that such a course of action, while perhaps preferable, may not be possible.


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