The talks to finalize an Iranian nuclear deal have continued in Vienna for more than two weeks now, conducted at the highest level by Secretary of State John Kerry. The State Department and Kerry himself might argue that they will leave no stone unturned in an effort to reach an agreement, and that Team Kerry is making a heroic effort despite the inconvenience of being apart from spouses, home, and other responsibilities.
(As an aside, someone should tell the State Department’s background briefers that this complaint merits little sympathy given how American soldiers and sailors deployed overseas spend months and sometimes years away from their families; Navy deployments have increased in length, for example, in inverse proportion to its budget, and troops in the field, when sequestered from their families, do not have the benefit of staying in five-star luxury hotels).
Alas, by continuing the talk so long, Kerry is not showing patience, but rather hemorrhaging his own effectiveness. The president or secretary of state can lend great prestige to talks, but to dispatch too much erodes the value of their involvement. As veteran peace-processor Dennis Ross wrote in The Missing Peace, “From the beginning, [Secretary of State James] Baker had one proviso for Middle East policy: he didn’t want to be ‘flying around the region the way [Reagan-era Secretary of State George] Schultz did.” Ross added, “He would not go to the Middle East unless there was a chance of real progress — a point he made to every Middle Eastern leader who came to Washington in the spring of 1989.”
Alas, this was advice that Baker, now a senior advisor to Governor Jeb Bush, did not take to heart. He traveled to Syria 12 times, twice the number of Schultz. That was nothing compared to Warren Christopher, Bill Clinton’s first secretary of state, who made the trip 29 times, leading to the erosion in his prestige. Today, few veteran officials or diplomatic historians would rank Christopher more effective than either Schultz or Baker.
Prior to his appointment as secretary, Kerry spent almost two decades in the U.S. Senate. Alas, he may have absorbed too much of the senate’s culture. Senators enjoy travel — President Obama chose the questionably competent Chuck Hagel to be his secretary of defense simply because they bonded on a Senate trip. But, too often, senators fail to recognize the price inherent in frequent travel. In 2006, the late Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter bragged that he had made almost 30 trips to the Middle East, including 15 trips to Syria. “We can’t expect someone to hit a home run every time they go to bat,” he said in order to answer those who questioned the absence of returns to his frequent trips. But, when batters strike out every time, they win no respect. Not only did Specter fail to achieve any meaningful diplomatic breakthroughs, but his visits instead often led Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, and subsequently Bashar al-Assad, to retrench.
Kerry clearly went to Vienna prematurely. He might have wanted the limelight, but every day he stayed, his prestige — and the seriousness with which his Iranian counterparts saw him — diminished. He may still win an agreement — serial collapse tends to make deals possible, though not good deals — but he might have achieved much more if he had simply been prepared to pick up and fly home, both taking a strategic pause and allowing fulfillment of the daily grind to underlings.