Slouching Toward Damascus

In Syria's implosion, Secretary of State John Kerry already faces a defining task. How hard is he prepared to push against Obama's weary realism? 

Last week, I suggested that Secretary of State John Kerry might turn out to be a diplomat on the order of James Baker or George Schultz. I meant that as a compliment.

But Baker was also the statesman who airily dismissed any effort to stop the Serbian slaughter in Bosnia by saying, "We don't have a dog in that fight." Baker understood his job as promoting America's national interests -- tout court. Now, as the Obama administration steers its dainty way around the butchery in Syria, which looks more and more like the Balkan war, we need to ask whether Kerry is that Baker brand of realist -- and if so, whether we should be grateful that he is.

Certainly he is regarded that way, both by those who welcome a dose of realism and those who don't. Sergei Lavrov, Kerry's Russian counterpart, recently praised him -- in Foreign Policy's May/June issue -- as a "pragmatic" professional, like himself. That's the kind of celebrity endorsement Kerry could probably do without. From the other side, the Middle East analyst Shadi Hamid has caustically noted that "if an alien came from outer space and was only allowed to read transcripts of Secretary Kerry's regional press conferences, it would probably have no idea that something called the ‘Arab Spring' happened."

That's only slightly hyperbolic. In a press conference with Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal, Kerry actually said: "Across the Arab world, men and women have spoken out demanding their universal rights and greater opportunity.... So I want to recognize the Saudi government for appointing 30 women to the Shura Council and promoting greater economic opportunity for women." (He did add that he hoped to see "further inclusive reforms.")

American statesmen have been lavishing inane praise on the Saudis for decades now, as once they lavished praise on autocratic allies in Brazil and Greece. Nevertheless, it is a fact that Kerry has spent a great deal of time over the last 30 or so years holding quiet chats with Middle Eastern dictators and their courtiers. He is, indeed, a pragmatic professional comfortable with other professionals. He told me proudly how well he knew men like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Syria's Bashar al-Assad -- just before the bottom fell out on the bragging value of those relationships.

As I said last week, Kerry has plunged bravely into the most intractable diplomatic problems America faces. That's why the comparison to James Baker seems as least potentially fair. But the world has changed drastically since the last days of the Cold War. Global populations are no longer mute spectators of a statecraft practiced over their heads. The way America is seen, and not simply by elites, restrains or enables America's behavior far more than it did a generation ago.

Barack Obama is himself acutely aware of this transformation: In one of his first foreign policy speeches as a candidate, he said that when he flew low over a disaster zone or conflict area, he saw children looking back at him and wondered, "when those faces look up at an American helicopter, do they feel hope, or do they feel hate?" Perhaps the president who finds himself soft-pedaling criticism of Bahrain, an important regional ally which is crushing its own Arab Spring uprising, would say that he has found the world to be more complicated than he thought. But he was right in thinking that we do have a dog in those fights, and not just in a moral sense. That's why the war in Iraq remains a calamity for America's national interests long after the last soldier has withdrawn -- and why the president is trying yet again to close the prison at Guantanamo.

Nobody had to tell Kerry that the world is complicated and intransigent; he knows that from all those years of closed-door diplomacy. But neither can I imagine Kerry saying, or thinking, "We have no dog in that fight." He is too morally driven to be that kind of realist. This is, after all, the man who first came to prominence denouncing the Vietnam War in a Senate hearing. Kerry did not absorb from the war Colin Powell's lesson that the United States should use force only massively and with a certain endgame, or Chuck Hagel's that we should do less rather than more. Kerry was prepared to see America use force to advance moral goals. He supported the NATO bombing of Bosnia in 1995, and favored a no-fly-zone in Libya before Obama came around to it.

And this is why Syria is a crucible for Kerry. Until now, Obama has made the cold-eyed judgment that America's national interest is best served by keeping a distance from Syria's civil war; he designated the regime's use of chemical weapons as a "game changer" not because it would make the violence intolerable but because it would threaten the region, and thus America's own interests. Is Kerry equally prepared to view Syria as a dreadful tar baby?

On the evidence so far, I think not. In early March -- well before the chemical weapons "red line" had been crossed -- Kerry said that the "reservations" about "who we are dealing with" in the Syrian opposition had been answered, permitting the United States to funnel non-lethal aid directly to the rebels. At the time, Martin Dempsey, the head of the Joint Chiefs, was making the opposite argument. The secretary of state then helped win an increase in assistance, and hinted that Washington might begin to supply weapons, or help others do so, if President Assad continued his onslaught. Both a State Department official and an outside expert told me that they believe Kerry is now pushing Obama to ramp up supplies to the rebels, though it's unclear if, as has been reported, that will involve weapons.

Of course, the labels don't matter if you make the wrong call. There are innumerable voices (see here, here, and here, for example) advising Obama to keep clear of Syria. If Syria is like Iraq -- a sectarian civil war just waiting to happen -- then Obama's instincts have been sound. If, on the other hand, Syria is something more like Bosnia, where an outside thumb on the scale might tip the balance far enough to force a cessation of violence, leading in turn to some kind of separation of forces and peoples, no matter how sullen and dangerous -- then we should wish that Obama had listened to figures like David Petraeus and Hillary Clinton when they argued a year ago for a more decisive American presence. And we should wish that Kerry makes, and wins, the case for actually having a dog in that fight.

That's what I wish, anyway. Since mid-2012 I have argued for a no-fly zone and military aid for the rebels. The question has become hugely complicated by the Islamization of the opposition and the increasing fragmentation of the country into semi-sovereign armed cantons; the hope that rebels might defeat Assad and rule over a unified, much less secular and democratic, state seems increasingly forlorn. Nevertheless, Assad must go; and there's no indication that will happen soon unless outsiders put their thumb on the opposition side of the scale.

So I come back to my original question about Kerry: Yes, it is fair to say that he has a legacy worldview in which gentlemen hash out the world's problems. But no, he is not the kind of realist who believes that America can do the greatest good in the world by adhering to the strictest possible definition of national self-interest -- or that "in difficult, uncertain times," as Robert Kaplan writes in his admiring article of Henry Kissinger in the current issue of The Atlantic, "the preservation of the status quo should constitute the highest morality." Kerry is something like the president he serves, uneasily perched between the wish to extricate America from the hash it has made and a romantic sense of what the country has been and can be. That is, at the very least, a good place to start.

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Terms of Engagement

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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