John Kerry, the lone fighter tilting at windmills

Hisham Melhem

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He looked exhausted, and frustrated, the expressions on his worn out face at times were more erudite than his halting words. The Secretary of State John Kerry tried stoically at first to fend off the incoming poisonous arrows directed at him by his former colleagues and ostensible friends on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The photographer of the New York Times captured Kerry at a moment of near despair with his face contorted, his eyes closed and with his hand stroking his forehead. The photo’s caption could have been “man alone,” “high tech torture” or “virtual waterboarding.” The peripatetic Kerry’s motives and assumptions, his record, and his belief that dogged diplomacy can settle intractable problems, came under withering attacks, derision and ridicule.


Some senators, from both parties spoke with the frightening certitude of a new convert, about the supposed naiveté of Kerry’s determination to tackle simultaneously the three thorny problems of the Palestine-Israel conflict, the Syrian war(s) the Iran nuclear program, and leave room for the unexpected, urgent crisis of the Ukraine kind.

Beat, but not beaten, yet

There were flashes of anger and indignation, and the old soldier who fought and bled in Vietnam was able to fight back and throw a couple of javelins of his own. The duel with his nemesis, Republican John McCain was memorable as well as emblematic of the travails of the lackluster foreign policy of the Obama administration and of Kerry as its vicar. Senator McCain went straight to the jugular; “I think you are about to hit the trifecta… Geneva II was a total collapse as I predicted to you that it would…The Israeli-Palestinian talks, even though you may drag them out for a while, are finished. And I predict that even though we gave the Iranians the right to enrich, which is unbelievable, those talks will collapse, too.”

Today, Kerry’s repeated calls in the past to change Assad’s calculus look embarrassingly hollow

Hisham Melhem

McCain went on to accuse the Obama administration of putting former President Theodore Roosevelt’s maxim on its head. “What you are doing is talking strongly and carrying a very small stick.” And for maximum effect he added. “In fact, a twig.” Kerry bristled at these Republican insinuations that all these initiatives have already failed. He told McCain “but your friend Teddy Roosevelt also said the credit belongs to the people in the arena who are trying to get things done.”

But Kerry himself, while defending his struggles against the threatening windmills, had to concede that there is a quixotic, even nihilistic element in these fights. “Sure, we may fail. You want to dump it on me? I may fail. I don’t care. It’s worth doing. It’s worth the effort.”

The peripatetic Secretary

No one can deny that Secretary Kerry has brought to his job the kind of energy that belies his age (70 years old), and that his endless travels to engage and cajole adversaries has played a major role in bringing about the “trifecta” of activities that have consumed his time and efforts since he became the 68th person to hold the office since Feb. 1, 2013. And even when he faced the perfect storm of crisis, as when Russian President Vladimir Putin initiated the machinations that led to the annexation of Crimea, Secretary Kerry managed to deal with this daunting crisis as if it is the sole one on his plate.

Unlike his predecessor, the extremely cautious and politically calculating Hillary Clinton, who avoided tackling the complex crisis of Syria, Iran and the Palestine-Israel conflict, in part because they may expose her to domestic criticism, thus impairing her presidential ambitions, and in part because the president’s advisors did not fully trust her, Kerry is free of such constraints or considerations. Regardless of history’s final judgments on Kerry’s efforts to solve these crises, which are more likely to be negative, there is no doubt that Kerry’s work so far has exposed Clinton’s thin record as secretary of state.

Kerry vs Baker

In its analysis of Kerry’s testimony, the New York Times compared the frustration of Kerry in his efforts to advance the peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel, to that of former secretary James Baker who displayed his frustration and anger at another Israeli government on June 13, 1990 during a similar hearing. Just as Kerry blamed the Netanyahu government’s settlements expansion for the current impasse, Baker did the same and over the same issue, but with his distinct Southern twang, and usual panache. Baker’s message to the Israelis was simple, direct and vintage Texas “Everybody over there should know that the telephone number (of the White House switchboard) is 1-202-456-1414. When you are serious about peace, call us.” (I was sitting not far from Baker, and immediately realized that I have witnessed a historic moment, and heard a memorable sentence uttered by a real mensch ready for combat).

Bush vs Obama

The newspaper said that there are important differences between Kerry and Baker, beginning with Baker’s genuine readiness to suspend U.S. mediation, while Kerry on the other hand, wants to keep the process alive. However, what was missing from the Times’ analysis was the crucial difference between the bosses of the two secretaries. Secretary Baker enjoyed the overwhelming support of his friend President George Herbert Walker Bush, while Secretary Kerry does not have that luxury, and the support he has from President Obama is lukewarm at best.

President Bush then was willing to lead from the front and take incoming hits from Israel and its domestic friends and he was wounded indeed. Former president Jimmy Carter, entered the fray few days ago when he criticized former Secretary Clinton because “she took very little action to bring about peace” between Palestinians and Israelis.

After praising Kerry’s efforts, Carter hit President Obama’s leadership style saying “I know from experience that the best way to have the United States be a mediator is for the president himself to be deeply involved.”

Alone again, naturally

From the beginning, Kerry’s enthusiastic efforts to revive the peace talks, and to convene the Geneva talks to settle the Syrian conflict, were supported by the White House but not as enthusiastically as he hoped for. His early attempt at changing Assad’s political calculus, by arming the moderate Syrian rebels to force Assad to sue for peace, were thwarted by a president who is very allergic to the use of military force, except in extreme cases and on a very limited basis.

The Obama administration’s silly and naïve mantra that the Syrian conflict does not have a military solution, not only helped Assad and his friends who have been operating all along on the assumption that the military option is the only solution, as well as undermining the principle that the judicious use of military force could indeed create facts on the ground that would facilitate a political resolution.

Today, Kerry’s repeated calls in the past to change Assad’s calculus look embarrassingly hollow. In fact, Presidents Assad and Putin, with little help from their friends the Iranians and Hezbollah, as well as help from the barbarous al-Nusra Front and The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), have forced the Syrian opposition and the pathetic “Friends of Syria” to change their own calculus. After his testimony, Kerry found himself under attack from the Israeli government which felt “deeply disappointed” by his remarks on settlements.

The shadows of Iraq and Afghanistan

Kerry, the lone fighter, has been waging a campaign against a reluctant military brass at Pentagon that seems to be determined to avoid striking Syria even in a “unbelievably small” attack. Informed sources say that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey usually reflect the prevailing thinking among the senior officers, many of whom served in Iraq and Afghanistan and who are very reluctant to get involved in another conflict in a majority Muslim or Arab state.

The military establishment is consumed by Putting Iraq and Afghanistan behind, and very concerned that the federal knife will end up cutting a significant portion of their budget. The Pentagon has an infinite ability to shoot down any call for military action especially if the president is not pushing hard for it. Technical or purely military excuses or budgetary concerns are always brought to bear to settle the argument in their favor.

Zero problems with the world?

President Obama’s early embarrassing encounters with the cruel realities of Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking and Syria’s harrowing tragedy, have pushed him to extreme, even immobilizing caution. His early jousting with Prime Minister Netanyahu over the issue of settlement freeze has left him embittered and embarrassed because he accepted defeat when he met what he felt was an immovable object.

His early calls on Assad to step down were based on naïve assumptions about what some advisors at the White House believed to be the inevitable winds of the so-called “Arab Spring” which will uproot Assad and his regime.

Obama’s disastrous fictional “Red Line” over the use of chemical weapons, which he drew on his own and without prior consultation with his advisors, proved to be one of his worst pronouncements. With the beginning of the fourth year of the conflict in Syria, and after more than 160,000 casualties, the “lethal” American support for the rebels is still minimal, and worst still it is designed to help the rebels to barely survive but not to win.

At this stage, President Obama is content to see his secretary of state continue his peace efforts, while maintaining his distance from the Syrian war. Unless the peace talks get very ripe for the plucking, and there is no indication that they will ripen any time soon, President Obama is not going to risk another entanglement in the Middle East. In a way, Obama, just as Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is willing to see Kerry playing Sisyphus and keep pushing that rock all the way to the top of the hill only to see it tumble back to the valley in a never ending nihilistic struggle.

The power of words

President Obama is a righteous man. He believes in the power of words, and he has a way with them. He wants to be right politically and morally, even when there is a gap between the demands of morality and the imperatives of effective leadership. He abhors conflicts, and his approach to international crises is similar to his approach to his domestic opponents: there is always a way to compromise, even retreat.

His handling of the Crimea crisis and President Putin exposed his leadership style. Moreover, President Obama believes that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, followed by a historic economic crisis, have dramatically reduced America’s power and influence on the international scene. While there is some truth in this assessment, nonetheless, the U.S. is still the dominant military power and the largest economy in the world. And yet Obama acts as if he could pursue a policy of “zero-problems with the world.”

A great power, by virtue of its greatness cannot live in a world with zero problems. What distinguished the United States in the last century was its international political and moral leadership. The U.S. could use that leadership without necessarily relying on military force. That presidential leadership was and is still absent in the Middle East.

Obama does not see Syria or Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking as urgent priorities, although he sees a nuclear deal with Iran as significantly more important. Obama’s leadership style, his belief that words sometimes can be as effective as actions; his tendency to avoid confrontations almost at any cost has alienated him from many of his allies. It is very disturbing to hear expressions of contempt for the President of the United States from old allies and friends in the Middle East.

Stand firm, John Kerry

Few days ago, former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and former secretary of defense Frank Carlucci along with four distinguished former officials, from both parties, wrote a letter of support for Kerry’s efforts at peacemaking. They urged labeling Israeli settlements as “illegitimate,” dismissed Israeli demands that Palestinians recognize the Jewishness of Israel, and rejected Israeli demands for continued military occupation of the Jordan Valley, and urged the Obama administration to show “clarity on America’s part regarding the critical moral and political issues in dispute will have a far better chance of bringing the peace talks to a successful conclusion than continued ambiguity or silence.” The title of the letter is: “Stand firm, John Kerry”. However, the hard question is “will President Obama stand firm”?

Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

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