When it comes to pure ineptness, it’s been quite a performance — and I’m sure you’ve already guessed that I’m referring to our secretary of state’s recent jaunt to the Middle East. You remember the old quip about jokes and timing. (It’s all in the…) In this case, John Kerry turned the first stop on his Middle Eastern tour into a farce, thanks to impeccably poor timing. He landed in President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt to put the Obama stamp of approval on the former general’s new government and what he called “a historic election.” This was a reference to the way Sisi became president, with a mind-boggling 97% of the votes (or so the official story went). Kerry also promised to release $575 million in military aid frozen by Congress and threw in 10 Apache attack helicopters in what can only be seen as a pathetic attempt to bribe the Egyptian military. Having delivered the goods, he evidently went into negotiations with Sisi without the leverage they might have offered him.
And then there was the timing. The day after Kerry’s visit, verdicts were to come down in an already infamous case of media persecution. Three Al Jazeera reporters were to hear their fate. Charged with “aiding” the Muslim Brotherhood, they were clearly going to get severe sentences (as indeed they did) in a court system that had already given “hanging judge” a new meaning. (While Kerry was in Cairo, death sentences were confirmed against 183 members of the Muslim Brotherhood.) He reportedly discussed the case with Sisi — there wasn’t a shred of evidence against the reporters — and was assumedly convinced that he had wielded American power in an effective way. Hence, when the verdicts were announced the next day and, as the Guardian put it, “delivered a humiliating, public slap in the face to Kerry,” he reportedly “appeared stunned.” He must have been even more stunned a day later when Sisi assured the world that he would never think of “interfering” with Egyptian justice.
The strangeness of all this is hard to take in, though Kerry has a record of not delivering big time. At the moment, allies and client states around the region — from Afghanistan (where President Hamid Karzai still refuses to sign a security pact with the U.S.) to Israel (where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government regularly announces new building plans in the occupied territories) — seem to ignore Washington’s will. This is by now both fascinating and predictable. If, having provided an embarrassingly full-throated defense of the Bush administration project in Iraq at a Cairo news conference, the secretary of state promptly flew into Baghdad to put an American stamp on the Iraqi government, he failed. His mission: to get the country’s politicians to form a “unity government,” essentially deposing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Even with his military in a state of near collapse and his own position desperately weakened, however, Maliki swept Kerry’s proposals aside. If the secretary of state then flew on to Irbil to “implore” the president of the Kurdish autonomous region, Masoud Barzani, not to move toward an independent Kurdistan… well, do I even have to finish that sentence for you?
Here, then, is a mystery highlighted by the crisis in disintegrating Iraq and Syria: What kind of world are we in when the most powerful nation on the planet is incapable of convincing anyone, even allies significantly dependent on it, of anything?
Into this increasingly grim situation steps a TomDispatch favorite, Juan Cole, the man who runs the invaluable Informed Comment website. Unlike the secretary of state, who, while in Cairo, definitively turned his back on the Arab Spring and the young protesters who made it happen, Cole embraces it and them. In doing so, he offers us a ray of sunshine, hope amid the gloom. Today, he considers the fate of the Arab Spring, suggesting that those, Kerry included, who have already consigned it to the trash heap of history don’t understand history at all. His piece catches the spirit of a remarkable new book he’s written that is just about to come out: The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East. It’s a must-read from an expert who has a perspective Washington sadly lacks.