For all the cynicism directed at the rational self-interest of American politicians, it does serve to simplify political interpretation: when we aren’t expressly told the motives of a given political actor, we can pretty well figure them out. The upcoming special Senate election in Massachusetts is a good example.
Last month, Julio Ricardo Varela took to the pages of the Boston Globe to ask a seemingly important question: “Gabriel Gomez is the GOP’s dream. So why isn’t the party backing him?” What he meant was that Gomez, the Republican nominee for the seat vacated by John Kerry, is a pathbreaking Hispanic candidate with an impressive background in both the military and the private sector. Yet he wasn’t getting much financial help from the national Republican Party.
Give Secretary of State John Kerry some credit. His blind faith in the magic of his diplomatic prowess has led him to embark on a futile effort to revive the Middle East peace process and to an equally foolish attempt to get Russia’s Putin regime to play ball with the United States on Syria. Such endeavors are more or less the moral equivalent of belief in the Tooth Fairy, but at least Kerry doesn’t think the Iranian presidential election going on today will have any impact on his equally fruitless efforts to craft a diplomatic solution to the standoff on Tehran’s nuclear weapons program. Last month Kerry rightly dismissed the notion that a new president chosen by the sham vote would have the slightest effect on the nuclear question since all power there rests in the hands of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But for those determined to ignore the truth about Iran’s intransigence as well as its phony election, that sort of a position is much too sensible. Hence the New York Times editorial today that said, “the election is important because it gives Iran and the United States a fresh diplomatic opportunity to avoid a dangerous confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program.”
It takes a special kind of tunnel vision to imagine that an election in which no one who opposes the policies of the Islamist regime is allowed to run and in which the candidates are competing for an office that does not have the power to change Iran’s foreign or nuclear policy is any kind of opportunity for the United States. But the willingness of the Times to hang its editorial hat on the election is instructive. The rationale for their argument is not so much a belief that Hassan Rowhani, the so-called “moderate” in the Iranian race, will really be able to influence Khamenei’s decisions as it is to nudge President Obama to offer Tehran more concessions in order to make the entire subject go away. The word “containment” does not appear in the editorial nor is it a policy that the administration says it is considering. But far from actually offering an option for the United States to “diplomatically rein in an Iranian nuclear program that could quickly produce a weapon,” a post-election initiative to make nice with the ayatollahs seems to aim at just such an accommodation. What the Times really seems to be doing is to try and smooth the way for an American decision to live with a nuclear Iran.
I’ve given up expecting peace-process zealots like Secretary of State John Kerry or the European Union to pay any heed to mainstream Israelis (i.e., the 83 percent who think even withdrawing to the 1967 lines and dividing Jerusalem wouldn’t end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). But recently, even Israel’s far left has become too “right-wing” for these zealots. That begs an obvious question: Since any peace deal requires two sides, how do they expect to close one by adopting positions so extreme even Haaretz columnists won’t support them?
Two regular Haaretz contributors and long-time peace advocates wrote columns this month decrying the current approach. First, former Haaretz editor-in-chief David Landau blasted Kerry for treating veteran Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem as “settlements.” Next, psychology professor Carlo Strenger explained why the Syrian crisis makes a full West Bank withdrawal impossible.
Last month, I dismissed John Kerry’s shawarma diplomacy as “purposeless,” not least because the Palestinians have shown no indication they are ready to sit down to high-level peace talks, and thus the secretary of state’s presence is a card too high to have played at this juncture. Kerry wanted to inject some immediacy into the peace process by kickstarting negotiations, but took a gamble by opening himself up to failure so early in his tenure.
The reason for Kerry’s trip seemed to be to deliver a message in person to the Palestinians: President Obama erred in demanding a settlement freeze as a precondition for negotiations, and he is not only lifting that demand but would like to impress upon Mahmoud Abbas the necessity of Abbas lifting that demand as well. The Palestinian reaction to Kerry’s request shows just how creative Abbas can be in avoiding peace negotiations. One of Abbas’s negotiators leaked to the Times of Israel an unofficial response, which managed to both comply with Kerry’s request and avoid negotiations:
In September 2012 at the Democratic National Convention, John Kerry stepped up to the microphone to mock President Obama’s Republican opponent. “Mitt Romney talks like he’s only seen Russia by watching Rocky IV,” pronounced Kerry. The joke was unintentionally funny if only because the primary foreign-policy criticism of Romney from the Obama/Biden ticket was that the GOP nominee was stuck in a Cold War “mind warp”; as Rocky IV appeared in 1985, the same could apparently be said of the Obama campaign’s pop culture references.
Nonetheless, the laugh last would come not from Kerry but at his expense, and that of his boss. Last month Kerry went hat-in-hand to Russian President Vladimir Putin to beg for mercy from Russia’s ongoing diplomatic humiliation of the Obama administration, especially on Syria. Putin kept Kerry waiting for three hours, refused to even feign interest in what Kerry had to say, and then ignored the issue afterwards. Since then he has helped Bashar al-Assad’s forces turn the tide in their favor, and today suggested Russia would be happy to station forces on the Golan Heights, since Western countries were slinking away from their peacekeeping responsibilities in unceremonious retreat.
American cable news stations devoted a lot of airtime today to Senator John McCain’s surprising visit to Syria where he met with the leader of a moderate rebel faction. The trip was supposed to focus attention on the effort to influence the West to aid the rebels, or at least those rebel factions that are not tainted by association with Al Qaeda terrorists. But while McCain restarted the conversation about the need for the U.S. to stop pretending it can ignore the crisis in that war torn country, his venture was actually overshadowed by the Russian announcement that it would persist in its determination to sell air defense missiles to the embattled Assad government.
It is still possible that the West will act to prevent more bloodshed and to make good on President Obama’s prediction. But the Russian decision to stand by their Syrian ally effectively renders McCain’s quest moot. Though Israel has issued a warning to Russia that any such missiles — and by extension the personnel servicing them — could be targeted by airstrikes, Moscow’s willingness to stake its reputation on Assad’s survival is likely enough to deter even the possibility of action by President Obama with the added bonus that doing so humiliates Secretary of State John Kerry after he trooped to Moscow to plead with the Russians not to do it. Though the Russians may not want to tangle with the West or even the Israelis, they seem to be betting that a U.S. president that prefers to lead from behind can be counted on to stay out of any conflict where there is a risk of confrontation. They may be bluffing but it’s hard to argue with their reasoning.
Secretary of State John Kerry and some Israelis, notably President Shimon Peres, had high hopes for the latest initiative to improve the Palestinian economy. Kerry arrived at the World Economic Summit in Jordan with his usual unrealistic high hopes for the value of his diplomacy but he did not go there without offering serious incentives to the Palestinian Authority to quit its boycott of peace negotiations that has been going on since before Barack Obama became president of the United States. The United States offered a $4 billion plan that was supposed to both boost the Palestinian economy as well as give PA leader Mahmoud Abbas a tangible benefit for cooperating with Washington’s new plan to restart talks with Israel. But the Palestinian answer wasn’t long in coming. Anyone who has paid attention to Palestinian responses to the various ways that President Obama has tried to tilt the diplomatic playing field in their direction or the way they answered various Israeli peace offers in the last 20 years knows that it was the usual one word reply: no.
As the Times of Israel reports:
Slapping down the notion that the PA might be appeased by Kerry’s focus on economic improvements, President Mahmoud Abbas’s economic adviser, Mohammad Mustafa, said ”The Palestinian leadership will not offer political concessions in exchange for economic benefits.” He added, in a statement reported by the Palestinian Ma’an news agency: “We will not accept that the economy is the primary and sole component.”
Mustafa, who also heads the Palestine Investment Fund, said the PA’s priorities are not economic but rather a political framework for the creation of Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines, with East Jerusalem as its capital, that also ensures the rights of refugees and a political compromise, the Palestinian news agency added.
Investors are nonetheless more than welcome to “come to Palestine,” the statement added.
In other words, the Palestinians say thanks for the cash but no talks except those that guarantee they get everything they’re asking for while giving nothing in return and even then there’s no guarantee they won’t continue the conflict as their insistence on the “right of return” — which is tantamount to calling for Israel’s destruction — indicates.
While this is another humiliating setback for Kerry, it’s actually far more significant than that. It exposes the fallacy at the heart of most efforts to create peace between Jews and Arabs for the last century.
While visiting Israel this weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry said that everywhere he goes – Europe, the Gulf States, China, Japan, even New Zealand and Brazil – the first thing he is asked about is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps his hosts are simply demonstrating tact by starting off with the only issue Kerry shows any real interest in. But if this is truly their number-one concern, we should all be afraid: It means the leaders and diplomats entrusted with managing global crises don’t have the faintest understanding of what is and isn’t important.
Even if we disregard some pretty major problems elsewhere on the planet – for instance, the adventurism of nuclear North Korea, or the serious instability in another nuclear power, Pakistan, where Islamic extremists slaughter thousands of their own countrymen every year – there’s a Middle Eastern problem right next door that’s infinitely more important than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am talking, of course, about Syria.
Feeling a bit peckish, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to the Middle East to get some shawarma. At least that’s how Kerry’s trip will seem to those in the region, who probably watched in utter confusion as Kerry made a big deal out of his trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories but spent his time in classic Kerry fashion: mumbling opaque and equivocal platitudes that could have been issued from Washington, just without the shawarma.
Though it’s probably worth pointing out that Kerry reportedly ate turkey shawarma, which of course isn’t shawarma at all but rather a ludicrous shawarma impostor whose proliferation is a terrifying sign of impending total civilizational collapse, and thus Kerry didn’t even accomplish that one goal. (The fault here lies, however, with the Israeli side, not the Palestinian side, as Ron Kampeas explains.) The Washington Post reports on how Kerry summed up his shuttle diplomacy:
Last week John Kerry went to Moscow to persuade the Russians to play nice with the rest of the international community on Syria. While he would have liked to have them join in the effort to force the Assad regime out of office, his hope was to at least get the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin to not further strengthen their Syrian client. The only bone Putin was prepared to throw Kerry was backing a proposal to hold a peace conference on Syria next month. But within a few days, the Russian contempt for the Obama administration and its new secretary of state was made all too clear with the news that they were shipping advanced missiles to Damascus that would be perfectly suited to threaten any Western ships or bases in the region that might resupply the Syrian rebels or enforce a no-fly zone in the country. In other words, the Russians demonstrated that when it comes to Syria, they have more in common with Iran and Hezbollah than the United States.
This ought to have been understood to be a sobering development for the administration that calls into question not just Kerry’s competence but a strategy that envisions leveraging a reset of relations with Russia into progress on Syria as well as dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat. But as the New York Times reports, Kerry is undaunted by the evidence of his failure and is instead concentrating on making friends with Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov. The result is, as the Times says, a “change in tone” in the relations between the two countries even if it has not actually advanced American interests.
While there is a case to be made for diplomats keeping the lines of communication open, what recent events have shown is that Kerry is not so much keeping the Russians informed of American positions as he has signaled to them that the U.S. is ready to bow to Moscow’s will. The news that, as the Times makes clear, the Russians are well pleased with Kerry ought to set off alarms in Washington.
The report this morning on the front page of the New York Times that Russia is sending a new batch of advanced arms to Syria is very bad news for those who hoped international isolation would lead to the fall of Bashar Assad’s regime. Despite constant predictions over the past two years from President Obama and others in the West that it was only a matter of time before this evil dictator would be forced out, Assad is holding his own. The rebels have not only failed to push him out of Damascus but, if recent accounts of the fighting there are true, they have lost ground as the regime has rolled back the tide of unrest all across the country. Though the rebellion may have fractured the country, as a separate front-page story in the Times testifies, with Iran and its Hezbollah auxiliaries doubling down on their backing for Assad on the ground and emboldened by Russia’s diplomatic support as well as its efforts to resupply the regime’s military, it’s hard to see why anyone would think the dictator is going anywhere in the foreseeable future.
But the implications of Russia’s move, coming as it does only a week after Secretary of State John Kerry visited Moscow to plead for restraint on their part, is a devastating blow to American diplomacy. It’s not just that the Russians are flouting the will of the international community as well as a sticking a finger in the eye of President Obama. Such mischief making is the hallmark of Russian foreign policy under Vladimir Putin since creating the illusion that Moscow is returning to the status of a major world power is integral to his own regime’s legitimacy. But the spectacle of Kerry playing the supplicant to Putin and then being humiliated in this fashion marks a new low for the administration’s prestige. It calls into question not just the direction of the American approach to both Russia and Syria but highlights the secretary’s blind belief in his own diplomatic skill despite abundant evidence to the contrary.
The end of the Cold War brought about an attitude adjustment in American culture toward several aspects of the tense, decades-long conflict with the Soviet Union. That adjustment is worth keeping in mind with today’s report that the Russian successor to the KGB has detained an American accused of spying for the CIA, because it’s doubtful the post-Cold War change was more pronounced on any subject than the spy game. Where once Americans saw Russian spies access the highest reaches of the government and couldn’t help but wonder what other walls might have ears, the U.S.-Russian espionage trade suddenly became either goofy or romanticized–sometimes both.
How else to explain the reaction to the discovery of Russian spies living in America 2010? They were either incompetent or making fools of their own bosses back in Moscow by sending back “intel” they had culled from the pages of American newspapers. And of course they were all satellites revolving around Anna Chapman, the redheaded Russian spy who, upon repatriation in Russia, immediately launched a second career as a model and television show host. In one fashion show, Chapman traversed the catwalk flanked by men dressed as Secret Service agents–and this was playfully reproduced by U.S. newspapers. Everyone seemed to be having a great time.
Secretary of State John Kerry was encouraged yesterday by the idea of a revived and improved Arab Peace Initiative being floated by an Arab League delegation. But the Palestinian Authority wasted no time in pouring cold water on the idea that even this baby step means a thing. Palestinian Authority negotiators dismissed the significance of the statement issued by the foreign minister of Qatar that the 2002 proposal would be modified to recognize the idea of “minor” territorial swaps that would modify the 1967 lines. As far as Erekat is concerned, the Palestinians won’t even bother to return to the talks so long as Israel is unwilling to concede the outcome in advance.
“Netanyahu has to say 1967,” Erekat told Nazareth-based Radio Ashams. “If he doesn’t say that, there’s nothing to talk about. For us, what the Arab League delegation presented in Washington is no different from the official Palestinian position.”
Erekat noted that the Palestinian Authority had negotiated in the past based on the 1967 borders and had been willing to adjust 5 percent to 7 percent of the border.
“We don’t see that as recognition of the settlement blocs, as some commentators on both sides try to interpret it. For us, every stone in the settlements constitutes a violation of international law, so it’s impossible to talk about Palestinian consent regarding the settlements,” he said.
“Our position is clear: As long as Netanyahu does not say the number 1967, there’s nothing to talk about. Maybe he needs to undergo psychological therapy to utter that number.”
But if the Palestinians are really interested in peace, it’s they who need the therapy. By issuing demands in this manner, Erekat is not just directly defying President Obama’s call for them to come back to the peace table without preconditions. Nor is his attempt to justify a continued refusal to talk just about borders. It’s part of a strategy the Palestinians have been pursuing for more than four years. Since the PA knows it has neither the will nor the ability to sign a peace agreement recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, their goal is to avoid any diplomatic setting at which they might be forced to admit this, as they did when they turned down peace offers in 2000, 2001 and 2008.
Secretary of State John Kerry hailed the idea of reviving the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative put forward yesterday in Washington by a delegation from the Arab League. Kerry, who reportedly is hoping to host a multi-party peace conference this spring, was pleased that Qatar’s foreign minister had suggested that the proposal might be modified from its original take-it-or-leave-it demand that Israel return to the 1967 lines to one that allowed for a mutually-agreed “minor swap of land” that would modify the border.
This is progress of a sort, and should not be entirely dismissed. But before those advocating for more Israeli concessions in response to the proposal get too excited, it’s important to remember why this initiative flopped the first time around: it’s not really a peace proposal.
While the Arab Peace Initiative continues to be cited by Israel’s critics as proof that the Jewish state really does have partners, this idea has always been more about polishing the image of the Arab world in the United States than anything else. Conceived in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks when the Arab states, and in particular Saudi Arabia, were viewed with disgust by most Americans, the initiative was part of an effort to rehabilitate their image. But despite the fact that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (who claimed it stemmed from a conversation he had with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah) and others in the foreign policy community promoted the idea, it fizzled. Why? Because it was not an invitation to negotiate, but a diktat. Even worse, it contained a vital poison pill: the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel that would, in effect, mean the end of the Jewish state, not peace with it.
Earlier this week, Haaretz reported that “well placed U.S. sources” said Secretary of State John Kerry was planning to convene a summit in June at which the United States, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority would, with the help of Turkey and Egypt, set a new agenda for peace talks. The starting point for this push would be the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and the principle of “two states for two peoples.” But even before the idea had begun to percolate, the administration is publicly backing away from summit plans.
Bernadette Meehan, National Security Council Spokesperson: said “We have seen the media reports of a planned Middle East Peace summit in Washington. These reports are not true. We remain committed to working with the Israelis and the Palestinians to achieve a lasting peace through direct negotiations.”
What’s going on here? It’s hard to say with certainty but it appears that after four years of having a secretary of state who understood that the White House is the only place policy is made in the Obama administration, the switch from Hillary Clinton to Kerry involves a change in attitude as well as personnel. But whether Kerry is trying to slip the leash or not, it’s clear that whoever it is that has vetoed the summit understands the situation better than Kerry. A summit is an invitation to diplomatic disaster, not peace.
As the 2012 presidential election drew to a close, Mitt Romney made the rounds in the important state of Pennsylvania with a closing message: “The president has run a strong campaign, I believe he is a good man and wish him well, and his family well. He is a good father and has been a good example of a good father, but it is time for a new direction. It is a time for a better tomorrow.” Barack Obama is a good man and a good father–this was central to Romney’s campaign theme. As the liberal Mother Jones noted a month prior to Election Day: “Romney’s schtick has been an almost sorrowful acknowledgment that Obama is a good man, an honorable man, but in over his head.”
Romney delivered that message consistently. There may have been plenty of arrant nonsense about Obama’s eligibility from the fever swamps of the right and shameless self-promoters like Donald Trump, but the man who wanted to be president showed the man who is currently president the respect of the office. That is strikingly different from how the Democratic Party’s grandees treated George W. Bush, of course. John Kerry joked about assassinating Bush. Al Gore screamed wild-eyed that Bush “betrayed this country!” Obama himself traded in all sorts of conspiracy theories about Iraq, including the claim that the Iraq War was launched to distract the country from “a rise in the poverty rate.”
I don’t recount this to use the opening of the Bush library today to re-litigate the left’s Bush derangement syndrome–that’s all in the public record. But amid all the recollections and reconsiderations of the Bush presidency today, one in particular caught my attention. The mainstream press coverage of the Bush presidency was not a sober record of history as it developed but rather a daily expression of the Kerry-Gore-Obama attitude toward the president. Yet it’s possible to think that Kerry, Gore, and Obama were being cynical; perhaps they didn’t really believe all the things they said about Bush. But what if the reporters who covered the Bush presidency believed their own propaganda? In what serves as a stinging self-indictment, two Politico writers–both formerly of the Washington Post and one currently the editor in chief of Politico–today have filed a story titled “What we’ve learned about George W. Bush since he left town.”
President Obama’s brokering of what we were told was a rapprochement between his friend Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was considered a great diplomatic achievement. But even though the United States continues to act as if that phone call actually did change something, virtually everything Turkey has done in the weeks since that conversation has served to expose this claim as a fraud. The latest instance of the Turks throwing cold water on these expectations came yesterday when the Erdoğan government rebuked Secretary of State John Kerry for having the nerve to ask that the Turkish leader forebear from undertaking a state visit to Gaza.
The Turkish insistence on going ahead with a gesture designed to prop up the Islamist dictators of Gaza shows that the entire premise of Kerry’s plan for a new bout of Middle East peace negotiations is based on false hopes and misperceptions. While Kerry already seemed to be setting himself up for failure with the Palestinians, the umbrage expressed by Ankara seems to indicate that more is wrong here than the new secretary’s faith in shuttle diplomacy. It’s not only that the administration seems blind to the realities of the Middle East. The former senator, who thinks of himself as a skilled and sophisticated envoy to the world, is handicapped by his blind faith in diplomacy and determination to ignore the power of Islamist ideology. And as this latest spat with Turkey illustrates, that failure may lead to Kerry making a bad situation even worse.
Is the two-state solution to the Middle East conflict still alive? According to Secretary of State John Kerry, it’s on life support, but there are still two years for it to become reality. This piece of prophecy delivered last week in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee is presumably the justification for the peace offensive Kerry is planning on conducting in the coming months. This will keep the secretary busy shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah where, he says, he sensed a new seriousness of purpose in Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. The deadline of two years is supposed to scare these two leaders and presumably their constituencies that Kerry hopes to save from a future of unending conflict with patient diplomacy. His prediction has more to with his fantasies about achieving success in an endeavor that has chewed up and spit out better diplomats than the former Massachusetts senator than any actual chances of peace.
But however foolish Kerry’s ambitions might be, this idea of a definitive timeline beyond which peace is impossible is far more dangerous than the new secretary’s ego trip. The obstacles to a two-state solution are formidable right now. Indeed, they are so great that Kerry’s attempt to jump-start them at time when the prospects for a deal are less than negligible is actually a greater inducement to violence than the status quo. But by setting an artificial deadline without any real hope of success or by recognizing what the real threats to peace actually are, Kerry is doing more than setting himself up for inevitable failure. He’s also undermining any hope that peace can be achieved in the future.
Those who doubted the wisdom of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s apology to his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in March had their first “I told you so” moment the very next day. Speaking to Turkish reporters, Erdogan appeared to immediately backtrack on his end of the rapprochement, which included dropping the case against the Israel Defense Forces for defending themselves from the Turkish-supported flotilla activists seeking to violently crash the naval blockade of the terrorist group Hamas.
A successful normalization of relations between Israel and Turkey would be beneficial to regional stability, so Netanyahu presumably offered the apology fully aware of the risks of dealing with Erdogan and believing they were outweighed by the rewards. But one of the reasons some opposed the apology at all was because they understandably feared it would legitimize the status of victimhood claimed by the violent invaders and endorse a frightful moral relativism which already undermines Israel’s attempts to defend itself.
But the moral relativism between the IDF and the armed naval invaders, while unfortunate, is fully eclipsed by the offensive and indefensible moral relativism Secretary of State John Kerry offered this weekend in trying to soothe Erdogan’s ego. According to the Associated Press: