Indefatigable crisis-tamper-downer John Kerry had a flight pattern this past week more erratic than the missing Malaysian airplane. He was returning to Washington from Saudi Arabia (and The Hague and Amman and points in between) where he had accompanied President Obama in smooth-talking grumpy ally Saudi Arabia — who, as they look at their future, have much to be grumpy about — when, at a refueling stop in Ireland, Kerry did a U-turn for a hastily arranged Paris meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov.
The Paris meeting seemed to yield little on the Ukrainian front but, no matter, it was just a way station for Kerry en route to another hastily-scheduled reaction-to-a-different-crisis meeting in Israel before returning to Brussels.
Peripatetic and indefatigable, quite apart from being difficult to pronounce, are equally apt adjectives for Kerry, now entering his second year as Secretary of State. Critics — John McCain and his even less appealing Senate side-kick Lindsay Graham come quickly to mind — look at the number of crises around the world and blame Obama for the chaos, claiming he allowed the US to forego its role of policeman of the world. Never mind that at the apex of our role as world’s cop, under George W. Bush, we gave global law enforcement, US-style, a generation-long black eye.
But even without gun-slinger Bush deep-sixing enthusiasm, at home and abroad, for the US as global nanny, the basic problem is that the world is a considerably more complex place than it was during the two-sided Cold War. And the US simply doesn’t have the ability, even if it still had the interest, to play the referee — and one willing to impose the rules, whatever they are, by force — in such a multi-faceted game.
In retrospect, or anyway in support of the theory that every cloud has a silver lining, Bush’s disastrous forays into Iraq and Afghanistan taught us lessons, forgotten since Vietnam, that we would eventually have had to re-learn. Indeed, a Bush apologist could argue that, if we hadn’t tested the waters at a time of our own choosing, we might very well be bogged down now militarily in Syria with even more disastrous results. (Of course, many Bush apologists are still clamoring for action in Syria.).
The experience of Iraq and Afghanistan remain relevant in at least two ways: just because the US spends more annually on its military than the next 10 or 12 nations combined does not mean we can easily use our military might to control faraway countries in the midst of civil wars or political upheaval. Nor does it mean that, our 800-plus overseas outposts notwithstanding, what goes on in every country or even the vast majority of countries is of strategic importance to us.
Crimea is a fine example. As has been well acknowledged, Crimea, as the site of Russia’s only warm water naval base, is of vital strategic interest to them — and of hardly any interest to us. While none of even our hardest of hard-liners were in favor of a US-military response to Putin’s aggression in the Crimea, it hasn’t prevented them from taking repeated potshots at Obama: his weakness encouraged Putin’s aggression; his lack of leadership prevented a more unified European response; his ultimate response, sanctions, were too late and too weak.
In fact, Putin was clearly reacting to a changed situation in the Ukraine, brought about by the overthrow of its pro-Russian government, and not by the implementation of some long-planned scheme. He would have moved to protect a perceived threat to his Crimean naval base under almost any circumstances, including a Black Sea simulation of the Cuban missile crisis. So good for Obama for not escalating the crisis. And for Kerry for showing up whenever and wherever for talks with Lavrov. Crimea will remain in Russia’s hands, where it was for nearly three centuries. Putin has increased his popularity dramatically among the Russian electorate to a percentage unheard of for virtually any modern US president. But he has weakened himself for the foreseeable future in the international arena in a way that his natural gas exports will not offset. Short-term victory for the old KGB hand; long-term problem.
Meanwhile, having departed Paris and his most recent but obviously not last Ukrainian encounter with Lavrov, Kerry headed for further talks with Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Palestinian President Abbas to try to forestall a complete breakdown of the initiative he began last summer. Kerry’s revival of the two-state talks struck me, at the time, as a fool’s errand because nothing Kerry had done indicated he had uncovered the possibility of a compromise that had eluded his predecessors over two previous decades of talks. Nor had Obama indicated any willingness to bring the kind of pressure on Israel that might be a game-changer .
Returning to Israel, it seemed that Kerry had fallen into the traditional trap of wanting to extend the talks for their own sake rather than for any but a pollyanish hope of a successful outcome. Focusing on an agreed-upon “framework” as an alternative to an unavailable deal was just postponing the inevitable. And the Israelis were on to him, suddenly bringing up a demand for the early release of Jonathan Pollard, the American the Israelis paid to spy for them, in exchange, basically, for continuing the talks. At an early stage of the negotiations, the Israelis had agreed to a series of Palestinian prisoner releases, the last one scheduled by March 31.
When the Israelis added Pollard into the equation, in effect reneging on the prisoner release, the Palestinians decided they had had enough. In a move that caught Kerry and the Israelis off-guard, Abbas announced he was submitting applications to join a variety of international agencies. The Israelis, predictably, had a strongly negative reaction to Abbas’s announcement, as they fear it is the first step in the Palestinians eventually joining the International Criminal Court and bringing charges against Israel for its continued occupation of the West Bank, which virtually every country in the world considers illegal.
Kerry left Jerusalem for Brussels Tuesday for further discussions with NATO foreign ministers about the Ukraine crisis. His plan had been to fly back once again to israel Wednesday to conclude the Pollard deal thus getting Israel on board with further negotiations. But with the Palestinian announcement, Kerry’s negotiations, now entering their ninth, and as originally scheduled, final month, while formally just on hold, are realistically on life-support. Events in the Middle East, as the last few days have shown, are always unpredictable, but the only thing left of Kerry’s peace foray, it appears, is the finger-pointing, already in high gear.
But there could yet be a positive outcome to Kerry’s initiative if, when the talks are officially dead, Kerry does a public post-mortem in which he reveals where the two sides had been in agreement and what the sticking points were. And then, he and Obama announce the US’s own specific and detailed plan for a comprehensive two-state solution. Such a plan will, necessarily, involve positions that both the Palestinians and the Netanyahu government are opposed to.
Even were the US to publicly present its own plan, it’s almost impossible to imagine Obama would be willing to exert the kind of serious pressure, in terms of withholding even a part of our annual $3 billion in aid to Israel, necessary to bring them around. And even less imaginable is Congress’s support of such pressure. And with congressional elections on the horizon, and pundits suggesting that the Democrats could lose the Senate, Obama is not about to take on Congress and Netanyahu. But even so, for the US to finally take a detailed public position would itself be a positive step.
Obama has recently discussed the potential for the growing isolation of Israel as its West Bank occupation continues into its fifth decade. Most Israelis indeed realize the status quo is unsustainable, but like the US public’s reaction to global warming, it’s something they’ll deal with tomorrow. But tomorrow looms. If Israelis were forced to discuss openly among themselves a detailed US peace plan, it might in fact help them face the future more forthrightly.
So, ironically, Kerry’s failure at the peace table, if coupled finally with a public and detailed US peace plan, could itself become a key element in moving Israel in the direction it needs to go.
Meanwhile, peripatetic and indefatigable, Kerry packed his suitcase in Brussels and headed for…Algeria and Morocco.
Graduating from Yale in 1964, Deford joined the Foreign Service the following year, spending three years in Vietnam. He studied Arabic in Beirut, after which he was assigned to the embassy in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. He was posted to Washington, New York, and Amman, Jordan before joining Merrill Lynch International in 1978. He spent much of a nearly two-decade career with Merrill in the Far East, retiring in 1997 to Maine. He has written a weekly foreign policy column for the local newspaper since 2001. He has served on a number of non-profit boards, including International College in Beirut, the newly-established graduate School for Policy and International Affairs at the the University of Maine and the Neiman Fellows for Journalism at Harvard.