During his first term in office, President Obama was criticized by conservatives for conducting what they dubbed apology tours in which he always seemed to find something in American history for which he felt compelled to make amends. To his surprise, neither apologies nor the magic of his personality and historic status were able to conceal the fact that he was far better at alienating America’s traditional allies than winning new friends. But as awkward as the president proved to be at diplomacy, even that experience did not prepare the world for John Kerry. In less than a year, he has not only already repeated these mistakes but also exceeded them. Currently on yet another apology tour of his own in the Middle East, where he is desperately trying to reassure moderate Arab countries that he has not sold them down the river in his vain quest for a nuclear deal with Iran, American prestige and trust in Washington’s word are at a low point in recent history.
In just the last week, Kerry has personally exacerbated tensions between Israel and the Palestinians that were already complicated by his lust for a peace deal that no one else thought possible. He stabbed both Israel and the moderate Arab states in the back by publicly accepting the terms of a weak nuclear deal with Iran that would have likely started the collapse of sanctions against Tehran and put in motion a process that would have made it possible for the Islamist state to reach their nuclear goal. He then added to that folly by rushing to Geneva to sign that agreement only to be embarrassed by the insistence of the French—of all countries—that there at least be a fig leaf of accountability for the arrangement. That blew up the P5+1 talks and left Kerry trying to explain both his appeasement and the failure while also obviously fibbing about the last-minute conditions being his idea rather than the brainchild of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. It must be admitted that to have done so much damage to American interests in so little time is quite an accomplishment. Though he has plenty of competition for the title, John Kerry may have already become America’s worst secretary of state in history.
Some observers are wondering today whether Kerry’s decision to essentially recognize Iran’s “right” to refine uranium and his reluctance to include Iran’s plutonium nuclear plans in the proposed agreement will complicate the Middle East peace process that he has spent so much effort promoting. But to claim that America’s decision to prioritize détente with Iran over its obligation to allies will make it harder for an agreement to be reached between Israel and the Palestinians. But those who are making this argument are misreading the situation. Israelis are understandably aggrieved about a U.S. policy shift that seems to have accepted Iran’s nuclear program as a fait accompli. But the peace talks were already a disaster before Kerry further alienated Israelis and moderate Arabs over his failed attempt to appease Iran. It was possible to argue that a strong American stand on Iran could have made Israel feel more comfortable making more concessions to the Palestinians. But even before he had announced his betrayal on Iran, Kerry vented his spleen about the standoff against Israel in a way that made no secret of his belief that only they were to blame for the failure of his idea. Having forced both parties into talks that were clearly fated to fail due to the division among Palestinians and their obvious unwillingness to accept statehood on generous terms that they’ve already rejected three times, Kerry can’t own up to the fact that his idea never had a chance and thus prefers to blame Israel for his own errors.
The problem here is twofold.
The first is Kerry’s exalted vision of his own diplomatic skills. As soon he was sworn in, he threw caution to the winds and embarked on a course that a wiser man would have understood was merely a repeat of the mistakes of the past. Better men and more skillful diplomats than Kerry have failed under more propitious circumstances than the current situation, in which Hamas rules Gaza and a weak and fearful Fatah holds onto the West Bank only with the help of Israel. But Kerry’s hubris is such that he appears to be genuinely shocked by the apparent failure of his initiative and is now lashing out wildly and going so far as to threaten Israel with more Palestinian violence if Prime Minister Netanyahu does not bend to his will.
That flaw in Kerry’s makeup is compounded by another fatal shortcoming in a diplomat: his naked zeal for the deal. The Iranians have read him perfectly and found it possible to get the West to come much closer to their position on their right to enrich uranium without having to budge an inch. If Tehran’s envoys refused to accede to France’s reasonable concerns it was because they believe Kerry and President Obama will eventually cave in to their demands just as they’ve moved off of their previous insistence that sanctions will not be weakened.
All this was bad enough, but the ham-handed way Kerry’s has barged around the Middle East making enemies was made even more foolish looking by Kerry’s lame post-Geneva explanations for his behavior. That he did all this only months after presiding over the administration’s disastrous retreat on Syria and the collapse of its influence in Egypt on his watch renders his recent tenure one of the most disastrous in modern American history.
Kerry’s conduct must even have the White House starting to rethink the decision to give him the freedom to carry out his plans. Though his predecessor Hillary Clinton’s accomplishments in her four years at Foggy Bottom were slim (other, that is, than racking up frequent flier miles), right now she is starting to look like a foreign-policy giant by comparison. The only question now is whether at some point President Obama will have to step up and rein in Kerry before he does his already troubled second term the kind of damage that will not only harm America’s standing abroad but hurt it at home.