If crises make or break statesmen, the fighting between Israel and Hamas has tried Secretary of State John Kerry and found him wanting. Throughout the crisis, Kerry acted as a simple arbiter rather than a diplomat who believed it was in his interest to defend democracy, freedom, and punish rather than reward terrorism.
Kerry does not simply lead the State Department, but he also reflects its culture. It has been a generation or more since State Department leaders thought strategically rather than simply reacted to crises. Talking, diplomacy, and the desire to initiate and continue processes occur round the clock: Few diplomats understand that sometimes the best option is to stand by and do nothing, all the more so if an enemy’s strength declines as conflict continues.
America’s adversaries understand the mindset of U.S. diplomacy and play the United States like a fiddle. Qatar is a case in point: While Qatar styles itself as a Dubai alternative which punches above its weight on the world stage, the reality is that it encourages, funds, and embraces corrosive forms of radicalism responsible over the last decade for more deaths than the entire population of Qatar itself. This is reflected in Qatari mediation.
Take events in Lebanon in 2008: The United States has long considered Hezbollah to be a terrorist organization for good reason. In interviews with Ash-Sharq al-Awsat in 2008, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s first ambassadors to Lebanon acknowledged that Iran formed the group and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps trained it as its proxy. When I visited Lebanon a couple years back, I toured some Hezbollah bunkers in southern Lebanon in which posters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini adorned otherwise blank walls above bedrolls.
While Hezbollah clings to its rhetoric of anti-Israel resistance, Israel’s UN-certified withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 denied it its contrived raison d’être. So it made a new one, claiming Lebanese sovereignty over the Sheba’a Farms, Syrian highlands occupied by Israel when Israeli forces took the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War. In practice, however, on the Lebanese political scene, Hezbollah operates like a mafia. It moves in on profitable business, demands protection, and runs the black market. Putting ideology aside, it’s like 1930s Chicago or, perhaps, 2014 Chicago. In 2008, Hezbollah moved into central Beirut and turned its guns on the fellow Lebanese it claimed to protect because it feared central government control over Beirut’s international airport would mean it would be harder to use that facility for the drug and weapons smuggling in which it and its Iranian sponsors engaged.
At the same time, the rise of the March 14 movement in the wake of the Cedar Revolution, no matter how fractious that political coalition was, threatened Hezbollah and its vision of a Lebanon oriented toward the Iranian sphere. Violence erupted. Enter Qatar: It decided to mediate the dispute, a process which then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice endorsed. The result was the Doha Agreement of 2008. This ill-conceived compromise, blessed by Rice, the State Department, and its culture of short-term thinking, awarded Hezbollah a third of Lebanon’s cabinet posts, giving Hezbollah effective veto power. That was the end of Lebanon’s democratic spring, and a direct result of a U.S.-endorsed Qatari compromise that privileged the violent and the Islamist.
Now consider Hamas. The magnitude of Qatar’s support for the terrorist group should be enough to get Qatar prime listing on the state sponsor of terrorism list. And yet, Kerry has made Qatar a full partner in the diplomatic process to achieve a ceasefire. America’s goal might be to achieve calm, and Kerry’s goal might be to find some—indeed any—success during his tenure, but it’s essential to recognize that Qatar’s goal is simply to salvage Hamas and allow its rearmament.
It’s always a dangerous thing when militants and terrorists conclude that an American desire for peace means that promoting violence can lead to a deal which privileges the violent over those who follow the rules of diplomacy. Yet, that’s exactly what first Rice and then Kerry did when it has come to Qatar acting as the good cop to achieve the aims of the bad cops in the Middle East. Rather than treat Qatar as a partner, it’s long past time the State Department and Pentagon began crafting plans to disassociate the United States from Qatar, which increasingly should be considered a liability rather than an asset.