The One-Man Show

Secretary of State John Kerry thinks he can singlehandedly solve the world's most intractable problems. But will President Obama even let him try?

Over the last two months, according to the State Department, Secretary of State John Kerry has spent 31 days traveling to 18 countries. He has spent 123 hours in the air. He has been to Turkey three times. He has met five times with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Kerry has served, in short, as a one-man diplomatic corps, a first responder to global crises. Meanwhile, the State Department limps along with hardly an assistant secretary in place.

You could argue that Kerry has his priorities backwards. But you would be wrong.

I say this not because Kerry has succeeded on his lightning dashes around the globe. He's had at least as many reversals as breakthroughs. He (and President Barack Obama) brokered a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey -- but the deal is now threatened by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's announced plan to visit Gaza. Kerry's hopes of re-starting peace talks between Israel and Palestine hinge in part on directing private investment to Palestine; but he could not prevent Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister and key international interlocutor, from quitting. All that comes with the territory; you can't succeed or fail after two months in a job like this.

But you also can't make progress on any of these frozen crises without making a new start. Middle East peace talks, Israel-Turkey relations, negotiations with Iran -- they've all been more or less in a holding pattern since 2010. On Syria, the Obama administration has adopted a policy of no policy while its worst fears -- a sectarian civil war serving as a magnet for jihadists -- have come to pass; the Syrian regime has now provoked a crisis in the White House by apparently transgressing the President's "red line" on the use of chemical weapons. Iraq, too, is coming apart at the seams, with a Shiite government trying to crush its Sunni opponents. In his angry screed, Dispensable Nation, Vali Nasr charges that Obama has abandoned his own professed faith in diplomacy. But Kerry hasn't; and he is doing his best to renew the administration's depleted energies.

The potential danger of Kerry's one-man show is not so much that he'll ignore the home front but that he'll persuade himself that he -- and only he -- can cut the world's Gordian knots, raising expectations he cannot possibly satisfy. This is, after all, the same man who was convinced that he could make Bashar al-Assad a partner for peace. Two years ago, Kerry described Assad to me as "a serious, thoughtful, intelligent guy who has a sense of direction for the country." As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry was working every angle of the Israel-Turkey-Syria relationship, hoping that if he just kept pushing he might help deliver Middle East peace. Indeed, Kerry spent the last four years believing that, with a little more persistence and calculation, a few more quiet back-channel phone calls, someone -- a certain very tall, very earnest, very well-connected someone -- could move the needle on the world's most intractable problems. Now he has the chance to show that he was right, which is why he's burst out of the gate like a half-crazed bronco.

Kerry may prove to be wrong; but as a friend of mine used to say, you can't hit if you don't swing. I asked Nicholas Burns, who after serving five secretaries of state, most recently as undersecretary to Condoleezza Rice, may be the foremost authority on the job: Has he watched Kerry's one-man show with any misgivings? The opposite, he said. He compared Kerry to the most successful recent secretaries, including James Baker and George Schultz, who worked the big issues relentlessly, personally, and several levels deep. "There is no substitute for the secretary of state in our system," as Burns put it. In the end, he says, the secretary is "negotiator-in-chief," and has to spend more time personally tending to crises than managing the department and even fighting inter-agency battles.

Of course, if Kerry's judgment is seen as wrong, or in any case at odds with that of the president, he's going to lose those inter-agency battles and become irrelevant. (See under: Cyrus Vance and Colin Powell). At a White House meeting earlier this month, Antony Blinken, the deputy national security advisor, warned against a conference Kerry was planning with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan's military chief. Relations between the two countries had been in a downward spiral for months, with each bitterly accusing the other of sabotaging peace. The White House feared the meeting might make things worse. But Kerry believes, with good reason, that he has better relations with Karzai and Kayani than anyone else in the administration, and thus is uniquely positioned to fashion the exit ramp from the region that Obama is desperately seeking. At a "principals meeting" the following week, Kerry said that he felt that he could nudge the two a little closer together on political reconciliation with the Taliban. The White House signed off.

Earlier this week, the three men met in Brussels. Afterwards, only Kerry spoke, offering no hint of a breakthrough. "Frankly," he said, "we all agreed that it's better for our populations to have a sense that we're going to under-promise but deliver." That sounded like papering-over-disagreement language, in which case it would appear that Kerry had gone to the mat with the White House, only to fail. But three administration officials told me that in fact the meeting had gone well, and perhaps better than expected. Kerry had promised the White House that he would be careful to manage expectations; the goal was to restore relations between the two countries more or less to where they had been at the end of last year, when Pakistan had made some modest gestures towards supporting political talks with the Taliban. And that's more or less what Kayani promised to do in Brussels. In turn, Karzai may have pledged to tone down his truculently anti-Pakistani rhetoric.

Kerry has, in fact, been here before. Since 2009, he has talked Karzai and Kayani off a series of ledges, only to see them climb back up once he's left town. The fact that he's now secretary of state adds weight to his diplomacy, but it won't change that dynamic. The United States, Afghanistan, and Pakistan have national security interests which clash in central ways; diplomacy can not change that, though it can help leaders recognize and build on their shared interests. Kerry is genuinely good at that. We'll see how much it matters.

We are, in any case, only seeing the uppermost portions of what Kerry is hoping to build. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz recently reported that Kerry has been trying to arrange a Middle East peace summit which would bring Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Jordan's King Abdullah to Washington in June, perhaps along with Turkey and leading Arab nations. This would pose a giant risk of raised expectations and monumental disappointment, and it's hard to believe that Obama would sign off without very strong prior commitments from Israel and Palestine, and maybe also Turkey and Saudi Arabia. That's a lot of moving parts, and you can be sure that Kerry has been working the issue furiously.

I have written in the past that Kerry is a man of physical courage and intellectual caution. I have no reason to change that view. But now that he is secretary of state, what matters is whether he has what I would call diplomatic courage: the willingness to throw yourself into a negotiation whose outcome you know that you cannot control, and which may well end badly. Of course one also needs prudence, judgment, patience, and hard work; but we already know Kerry has that. Now we know as well that he is prepared to take risks, to err on the side of trying. If Obama can bring himself to trust him, Kerry just might accomplish big things.

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Terms of Engagement

For Shame

Why don't Americans care more about torture?

Practically everyone from U.S. President Barack Obama to newspaper columnists has reacted to the bombing of the Boston Marathon by declaring that Americans will not abandon their daily habits, or their deepest values, in the face of another terrorist attack. Be it so. But a report on the torture of detainees in the United States and abroad, released the day after the Boston attack, painfully reminds us of what America's leaders permitted themselves to do -- and the American people permitted them to do -- in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. And there is little reason to be confident that it wouldn't happen again.

The report of the Constitution Project's Task Force on Detainee Treatment concludes that "it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture." We knew that, of course. But this 577-page report not only reminds us of every sickening thing the United States did in the name of protecting Americans from the threat of terrorist attack, but it comes under the unimpeachably bipartisan seal of co-chairs James R. Jones, a former Democratic congressman from Oklahoma, and Asa Hutchinson, a former Republican congressman from Arkansas who later served in George W. Bush's Department of Homeland Security. That matters: Leading members of the Bush administration, most notoriously Vice President Dick Cheney, continue to insist that they did not, in fact, engage in torture.

The report offers a kind of road map for how a democracy goes about doing things that are repugnant to its principles. Military dictators can simply order dissidents to be pushed out of planes into the sea or thrown into prison to rot; the political leaders of a democracy need the legitimacy of law to justify otherwise despicable acts, whether it's Jim Crow legislation or the fraudulent treaties that drove Native Americans from their land.

How were prisoners seized in Afghanistan to be treated once they were brought back to the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay? Military men tended to assume that they would be treated according to the well-known laws of war. The judge advocates general of the military services believed that the Geneva Conventions had to apply to detainees. But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ruled that interrogators could use "enhanced techniques" forbidden by the conventions, adding the dark joke that forcing prisoners to stand for up to four hours was too lenient, since he often stood eight to 10 hours a day. Prolonged standing was, of course, the least of it: Mohammed al-Qahtani, thought to be the "20th hijacker," was subjected to extreme stress positions as well as extreme cold, injected with large quantities of intravenous fluid so that he urinated on himself, led around on a leash and forced to bark like a dog, etc.

The report describes how Alberto Mora, general counsel of the Navy, innocently imagined that the reports he had heard of detainee abuse at Guantánamo must be the result of "a rogue operation." Mora told Rumsfeld's chief counsel that a scandal, and a moral catastrophe, was in the making. Rumsfeld agreed to impanel a review -- but brought in John Yoo, the White House lawyer who had already written the memo granting the CIA the right to use enhanced techniques. Yoo reproduced his reasoning for Rumsfeld. But when Mora heard nothing further, he thought he and the judge advocates general had carried the day. In fact, Rumsfeld's office had produced a secret final report that incorporated Yoo's argument. Torture at Gitmo would thus have the formal imprimatur of the military's own judicial authorities. It would be not just legal, but legitimate.

Again and again, men of principle, often in uniform, insisted that torture was neither legal nor legitimate. They were browbeaten and threatened, sometimes physically. When Jack Goldsmith, who had taken Yoo's job at the Office of Legal Counsel, tried to overturn Yoo's findings, David Addington, Cheney's attack-dog legal counsel, shouted at him: "The president has already decided that terrorists do not receive Geneva Convention protections.… You cannot question his decision." Of course Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld never authorized torture; instead, they made it clear that anything done to detainees would be considered legal. And though torture is by definition illegal, even the most savage punishment would not constitute torture.

America did a terrible thing. But America is a democracy, and democracies hold people accountable for their misdeeds. So once the truth began to come out, by way of the terrible photographs taken at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the formal mechanisms of accountability lurched into action. The low-level military police who committed those documented outrages were tried and convicted. But the special operations soldiers who committed repeated atrocities at secret facilities in Iraq received nothing stronger than a letter of reprimand. Their commanding officer, Brig. Gen. Lyle Koenig, was allowed to retire. The Justice Department then investigated 101 cases of CIA abuse, dismissed 99 of them, and ultimately found insufficient evidence to go ahead with the other two. The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility found that Yoo had committed "intentional professional misconduct" -- but Obama's attorney general refused to adopt the finding. Of course Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld have not been punished. What is worse -- they have not been dishonored.

Why is that? Why have the torture architects not been covered with the shame they so richly deserve? The report rightly blames Obama for continuing to pull a veil of secrecy over so many crucial documents, including a 6,000-page Senate Intelligence Committee report on detainee abuse, inquiries into prisoner deaths, and even the accounts by Guantánamo inmates of their own mistreatment (on the grounds that the abuse exposed them to classified techniques). Perhaps if we knew more, we wouldn't judge the morality and efficacy of torture from episodes of 24. The crimes belong to the Bush administration, but the failure of accountability also sticks to Obama.

Yet there is no evidence that the American people want to know the truth. Quite the contrary: A poll last fall, featured on ForeignPolicy.com, found that 41 percent of respondents thought the United States should use torture against terrorists, while 34 percent thought it should not -- a figure that had increased significantly from five years earlier, when images from Abu Ghraib were still fresh. A quarter of respondents approved of waterboarding, and 30 percent of chaining prisoners naked in stress positions. The reason the horrors of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib could happen again is not simply because they have not been forbidden by law, as the report concludes, but because Americans believe that the war on terror has accorded them a right to torture.

Americans have an apparently ineradicable view of themselves as a force for good. Republicans shamelessly play to this angelic self-conception when they accuse Obama of not subscribing to the national credo of "American exceptionalism." But what dark deeds has that credo excused! To know for a certainty that your ends are noble is to excuse yourself in advance for whatever means you choose to fight your adversaries, who by definition must be evil. This is what the South American generalissimos who "disappeared" alleged communists in the "dirty wars" of the 1970s and 1980s told themselves. But of course they didn't profess to believe in fine universal principles, as Americans do. They didn't have a free press and vigorous political debate, as Americans do. The shame, therefore, in some measure attaches to all Americans, not just to America's leaders.

The detainee report quotes an official in Poland, a U.S. ally that hosted one of the "black sites" where the CIA felt free to do what they wished to "unlawful combatants." The man could not quite make sense of what he saw. "The problem," he told investigators, "is that Poland always looked to the United States as a beacon of what was right, what was aspirational, what is ethically correct. To us, when we heard about the Russians, torturing and kidnapping and killing … we thought, the United States is our model."