Commentary Magazine

Foggy Mind at Foggy Bottom

The emblematic moment of John Kerry’s tenure as the steward of American foreign policy came in London on September 9, 2013. The secretary of state was holding a press conference when he was asked about the Syrian civil war. Bashar al-Assad’s forces had been caught using chemical weapons on the rebels who hoped to bring the Arab Spring to Damascus. The use of such weapons had been designated by President Obama as the West’s “red line.” Obama had no desire to get involved in the Syrian civil war, but neither did he want to be seen as tacitly accepting a dictator gassing his own people. And so a president intent on reducing the U.S. military’s global footprint instead declared on August 31, 2013, that the West had no choice but to launch punitive military strikes against Assad’s assets in Syria. He scheduled a televised address for September 10 to lay out his case.

But the day before, there was Kerry in London. A CBS reporter asked him if there was “anything at this point that [Assad’s] government could do or offer that would stop an attack.” Kerry’s response was an attempt to say “no.” He had, after all, been relentless over the previous two weeks in making the argument that strikes were necessary—at one point saying the evidence of chemical-weapons use was “screaming at us.” But the question turned out to be the proverbial banana peel. Kerry responded:

Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.

Kerry’s statement sought to underscore the fact that there was no realistic option to avert a strike. But he hadn’t counted on Vladimir Putin. Russia, intent on helping their Syrian client and stymieing the United States, leapt into action. Putin accepted Kerry’s challenge. He offered to get Syria to turn over its chemical weapons. But, he warned, his new approach “can work only if we hear that the American side and all those who support the United States in this sense reject the use of force.” The resolve of the White House, utterly half-hearted about the whole business anyway, collapsed. The Putin gambit forestalled American action. Obama gave a confused speech. There was no American attack. Kerry’s verbal ineptitude had preempted the very policy he was trying to advance.

And so it has often been with Secretary of State John Kerry. From Syria to Iran to Israel and the Palestinian territories, Kerry’s mix of emotive arrogance and blind ambition has asserted itself again and again—with similarly ruinous consequences.

On the heels of Kerry’s misstep, a deal was struck between the United States, Russia, and Syria to rid Assad’s forces of their chemical weapons with the help of the United Nations. This did not mean the end of chemical warfare in Syria. Indeed, Assad dragged his feet, missed deadlines, and then used chemical weapons, such as chlorine bombs, that were not on the list of banned substances. The deal made the West implicit negotiating partners with Assad while establishing a policy of looking the other way as the regime’s opponents were slaughtered with conventional weapons. The death toll in Syria continued to climb, hitting 170,000 according to estimates in early July. In June, Assad “won” reelection with just under 90 percent of the vote. On July 16, he was sworn in for a new term, almost three years after Obama declared “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

On June 23, the Washington Post reported that Syria had turned over the last of its declared chemical weapons. By that time, however, Assad had been caught using other chemical weapons. Kerry was circumspect in response: “It’s very important, however, even as we mark this moment of removing 100 percent of the declared weapons, that we understand that our work is not finished.” Nine months and a series of missed deadlines after first claiming the handover and destruction had to be completed within a week, the secretary of state was forced to acknowledge that there was still no end in sight to Syria’s illegal behavior.

And then there was Iran. John Kerry only took over from Hillary Clinton at Foggy Bottom in late January 2013—but according to a story published by the Boston Globe in November, he had basically been driving this country’s Iran policy since late 2011.

At the time, Kerry was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Keen on advancing the Obama administration’s goal of a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian threat—or, to be more precise, a process of nuclear negotiations that would give the appearance of such—Kerry opened a secret back channel at a meeting in Oman in December 2011 with the Omani head of state. That well-kept secret succeeded in opening an “Omani channel” to the Iranians, which resulted, eventually, in face-to-face talks once Obama won reelection and Kerry officially took over at State.

In early November 2013, officials from the P5+1—the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and Germany—were zeroing in on a deal that would freeze parts of the Iranian nuclear program in return for relief both from international sanctions and the sanctions placed on Iran by the United States. A final deal was not in the offing. Even so, the sides sought to get an interim agreement that would buy each time to accomplish its goal.

Advocates within the administration said that the West’s ultimate goal of preventing Iranian nuclear-weapons capability would be aided by an interim deal. The deal would slow the Iranian program long enough for the remaining sanctions to take such a toll on the Iranian economy that its nuclear program could not be sustained.

The Iranians supported it for almost exactly the opposite reason. They sought the attainment of nuclear-weapons capability, if not a weapon outright. Their aim in an interim deal, then, was to run out the clock on the West by weakening the sanctions enough to extend their own window to reach their goal.

Kerry seemed poised to sign a deal appealing to Iran. But French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius intervened. His objections centered on the fact that the deal would allow Iran to continue construction on its nuclear reactor at Arak—a reactor which, once completed, would be insulated from attack. Fabius was also uncomfortable with the amount of enriched uranium the deal would allow Iran to keep. France would not fall for “a fool’s game,” he said. According to Foreign Policy, Fabius’s concerns tracked closely to those of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was reportedly kept out of the loop by Kerry until the Saudis panicked and privately warned the Israeli government that Kerry was (willingly) getting taken for a ride. Fabius scuttled the talks.

Two weeks after that, Kerry got Fabius on board and the deal was signed. Eight months later, as Kerry prepared to extend the talks, it was clear which of the players had the better eight months. The results of a joint study from Roubini Global Economics and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies released in July showed the Iranian economy not in collapse but in recovery. After a year of heavy contraction, economic growth was expected in 2014–15. Inflation was down. The sanctions relief from the interim deal resulted in a six-month, $11 billion boom for the Iranian economy in direct benefits. Now the talks have indeed been extended. Like the open-ended effort to rid Syria of chemical weapons, the Iran deal’s legacy in the near term is a self-perpetuating cycle of missed deadlines. In the long run, its legacy may well be a bomb—unless there is a military strike to destroy the program before it goes operational.

Another consequence of the free rein Iran and Syria suddenly had in the region showed itself on March 5. Israel announced it had seized a civilian ship, flying the Panamanian flag, that contained M302 surface-to-surface rockets. The weapons had been manufactured in Syria, shipped from Iran, and were bound for Gaza. This missile shipment was the perfect symbol of the diplomatic circles Tehran had been running around Washington—for even as it talked in Vienna, it was helping arm terrorists in Gaza.

Which, of course, foreshadowed the war that would mark the third strike in Kerry’s at-bat in the Middle East.

Once again, talking came first. On July 19, 2013, Israel and the Palestinian government agreed to Kerry’s proposal to resume the peace process. Kerry’s proud statement was almost a victory lap: “I am pleased to announce that we have reached an agreement that establishes the basis for resuming direct final-status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.”

In other words, negotiations had been conducted with the express goal of creating more negotiations. And indeed, Israeli and Palestinian delegations would begin to negotiate after having negotiated about negotiating. But for the better part of a year, the two sides and their American moderators would aim for and fail to achieve a third tier of peace talks: direct negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

All this talking about talking would have been comical if violence had not been lurking just beneath the surface of the Palestinian territories. Such periods of relative quiet are deceptive. They appear to present the necessary conditions for renewed diplomatic activity; in reality, they are often the result of a delicate balance better left undisturbed.

Modern presidents can’t seem to resist the siren song of the peace process, and Obama proved to be no different. Kerry, capping off a long career in the Senate marked by a loss to George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election, was looking for a legacy. But he took the one island of stability in the midst of a Middle East in flames and turned it into a war zone.

The first clue that the Palestinian side wasn’t serious about a peace deal was Abbas’s request of a precondition for negotiations: He needed a concession from Netanyahu even to begin the process. That concession was granted when Netanyahu, to the enraged howls of the Israeli public, released jailed Palestinian terrorists. The first clue that the Americans weren’t capable of managing this situation competently was their choice of lead negotiator: Martin Indyk, the former American envoy who, during his time in the Clinton administration, developed the habit of badmouthing Israeli officials and policy to the Israeli press and who was known to have a poisonous long-standing animus against Netanyahu.

In early December 2013, Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy picked up steam. In one 36-hour visit, Kerry reportedly held three meetings with Netanyahu and one with Abbas. He left enthused about the process and declaring support for Israel’s security needs. But cracks were already beginning to show. Kerry had arrived with a security plan in hand; neither side was satisfied with it. A week later, on December 12, Kerry returned to discuss the issue of keeping Israeli troops in the Jordan Valley for a limited period—5 to 15 years—after the establishment of a Palestinian state. For Netanyahu, a prearranged, limited time period for the troops was too risky; for Abbas, the mere presence of Israeli troops on sovereign Palestinian land was a nonstarter. “Joint presentations to Netanyahu and Abbas last week by Kerry and retired Marine General John R. Allen, the Obama administration’s special envoy, do not appear to have been well-received,” the Washington Post reported dryly. The fracas drew an angry letter from Abbas to Obama.

In late December, days before Kerry was due back for another round of shuttle diplomacy, Israeli media revealed that one of the preconditions for negotiations was coming undone thanks to Kerry. Israel had been releasing Palestinian terrorist prisoners in stages. By this point, 86 had been freed. Abbas wanted the fourth and final stage to include Israeli Arab prisoners. Netanyahu refused; Israeli Arab terrorists, because of their citizenship, pose a greater security risk than those who can easily be deported and kept out of the country. Kerry had apparently let each side believe their demand had been met beforehand. Bad negotiating tactic.

Some of Kerry’s proposed compromises, no doubt proffered in good faith, still rankled. One was his attempt to get the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state in return for the acceptance of the pre-1967 armistice lines as the basis for border negotiations. Though Kerry had been aiming for common ground, he only managed to push both sides farther apart. As Kerry prepared to release his own “framework” agreement, for which he began laying the groundwork in December and January, Israeli media accused him of threatening to uncork European anti-Israel boycotts if talks failed. Palestinian officials accused him of having threatened to end American aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Israeli officials, believing their security concerns were being ignored, were growing increasingly frustrated by Kerry. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon vented; on January 14, the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth quoted him accusing Kerry of being “inexplicably obsessive” and “messianic” in his quest for a deal. “All that can ‘save us’ is for John Kerry to win a Nobel Prize and leave us in peace.”

Kerry was insulted. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called the comments “offensive and inappropriate.” Psaki then laid on the guilt: “To question Secretary Kerry’s motives and distort his proposal is not something we would expect from the defense minister of a close ally.” But Kerry, seemingly proving Ya’alon’s point, wouldn’t take no for an answer. The Jerusalem Post reported that Kerry’s team would use the Ya’alon incident as an excuse not to walk away but to increase its pressure on Israel and continue its focus on the peace process.

Sure enough, everyone got back to work. Negotiations puttered along uneventfully, and seemed likely to peter out around the closing window of April 29. About a month before the final deadline, Abbas actively decided to sink the process. He formally applied the Palestinian Authority for membership in 15 international organizations and treaties. The move violated the agreement that had served as the basis for this round of negotiations.

Kerry had tried everything to forestall this latest iteration of Abbas’s statehood gambit. He had even floated the possibility of releasing convicted spy Jonathan Pollard to encourage Netanyahu to release the prisoners Abbas was demanding. The Palestinians moved anyway.

The talks were dead. Everybody knew it. But Kerry. He redoubled his efforts. “Negotiators barely slept for three weeks,” the New York Times reported later. Kerry insisted that, like Rocky, he didn’t hear no bell. “The important thing is to keep the process moving and find a way to see whether the parties are prepared to move forward,” he told reporters.

Abbas’s team, trapped at a table they were desperately trying to flee, fell back on their Plan B: joining a unity government with the Hamas faction currently running the Gaza Strip. Plans had been drawn up to do so just in case this “nuclear option” was needed. A week before the April 29 deadline, the unity agreement was announced, catching everyone by surprise and putting the final nail in the coffin of Kerry’s peace process.

And, as happens at the conclusion of every Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiation, horror struck. At about 10 p.m. on June 12, three Israeli teens were hitchhiking near the historic kibbutz settlement Kfar Etzion when a car stopped and the boys got in. They had been picked up by two members of a West Bank branch of Hamas, who killed them soon after. Their bodies were found on June 30 near Hebron.

During the 18-day search for the boys, Israeli security forces cracked down on Hamas operations in the West Bank. A couple of days after the bodies were located, a group of Israeli soccer hooligans abducted and murdered an Arab teen from Jerusalem. Tensions rose in and around Jerusalem, and Hamas joined the fray from Gaza, stepping up its rocket attacks on Israel. On July 8, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, with Hamas rocket attacks numbering nearly (and soon surpassing) 100 per day.

One attack in particular, however, was a milestone. Late on July 8, a rocket struck the town of Hadera, some 60 miles north of Gaza. According to the Jerusalem Post, it was the farthest distance a Hamas rocket had ever traveled from Gaza and reached Israel. It was an M302—the same model as the rockets intercepted in March on their way from Iran to Gaza.

As the IDF expanded its counteroffensive in Gaza, troops discovered a vast, subterranean network of tunnels connecting Gaza and Israel, forged and reinforced to enable cross-border raids and kidnappings on a massive level. Something would have to be done about the tunnels, which amounted to “another terror city” all its own underground, in the words of an Israeli official.

American officials—Kerry included—were vocally supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself against terror. But on July 20, during a commercial break in the middle of an interview with Fox News’s Chris Wallace, Kerry was caught on microphone disparaging Israel’s attempts to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza and telling an aide he wanted to be on a plane to the Middle East as soon as possible.

On July 25, after a few days in the region, Kerry came to the Israelis with a plan. His proposal would have prevented Israel from taking necessary action against the Gaza tunnel system, which Hamas had been planning to use for a multi-pronged concerted terror attack on Rosh Hashanah. In his attempts to bring Hamas to the table, Kerry had gone looking for a new interlocutor, and found one in the Emirate of Qatar. He did this knowing that the Qatari government has been a leading supporter of extremist groups in the Middle East, most significantly Hamas. (The United States reportedly blocked a massive wire transfer from Qatar to Hamas just before the recent war in Gaza.) Hamas and its terrorist infrastructure are part of Qatar’s investment portfolio. Any rational negotiator would have understood that Qatar would seek to protect its investment.

Israel’s Cabinet met and rejected the Kerry cease-fire proposal unanimously. No, it did more than that; the Cabinet recoiled in horror. The Israeli media did the same, including traditionally leftist outlets like Haaretz. No one thought the deal was defensible. Kerry responded, oddly, by insisting it had only been partially rejected, that it wasn’t meant to be a finished product to be voted on at a Cabinet meeting, and that negotiations would continue.

The sheer volume—both measured by sound and column inches—of the repudiation didn’t only damage Kerry’s credibility. It wounded his pride.

And he let everyone know it. A trio of defenders stepped up to push back on Kerry’s behalf: Jen Psaki, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and White House assistant Anthony Blinken. No one in the White House or at Foggy Bottom apparently considered the sheer strangeness of lower-level staffers and advisers praising Kerry’s intentions and abilities so publicly and paternalistically, as if bucking up a child benched during a school soccer game.

Whereas Kerry’s first foray into Middle East peacemaking had resulted in Israeli-Palestinian armed conflict, his second had no effect whatsoever on the duration of the war. Israel continued its actions against the tunnels until—and here is a novel concept—their task was completed. Kerry’s diplomacy has left Washington on worse terms with Jerusalem, Cairo, Riyadh, and Ramallah, though this odd quartet found themselves closer to each other than ever. As the conflict in Gaza raged on, the Obama administration ratcheted up its criticism of Israel beyond any sense of proportion. Whether this was retribution or diplomatic ineptitude was unclear, but also irrelevant. Officials continued to portray Kerry as the victim: “I cannot for the life of me understand why the Israelis would do this to Kerry,” a senior administration official complained bitterly to the New York Times.

Kerry’s diplomacy has had one notable success, however—and it is an instructive one. In July, he went to Kabul. The Afghanistan war is winding down, as is the troubled tenure of President Hamid Karzai. An election was held on April 5 to determine who would succeed the man whose relationship with the United States had deteriorated to such an extent that the Obama administration had wisely chosen to wait him out in order to sign a bilateral security agreement Karzai had spurned.

That election primarily pitted Abdullah Abdullah, the country’s former foreign minister, against Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister and university chancellor. Abdullah won the first round, but neither candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote, so the two headed to a runoff election on June 14. Ghani ended up ahead by 12 percent after the runoff. Abdullah, suspicious after having won the initial election by 14, protested. He accused Ghani of being the beneficiary of election fraud and threatened rebellion. The country seemed on the verge of civil war.

Kerry came to Kabul to broker a deal. Three days later, on July 13, he had one: Afghanistan’s election commission would conduct a full audit of the votes with help from international monitors. The deal also called for a power-sharing structure that could offer Abdullah a palatable consolation prize if the audit confirmed the initial result.

Kerry’s Afghanistan deal was a genuine success story. But rather than revealing the statesman Kerry believed himself to be, it offered an inadvertent glimpse of why his approach as secretary of state has been so destructive. The situation in Afghanistan had characteristics that differentiated it from the other conflicts Kerry hoped to solve. Unlike Iran, the troublesome actor in Afghanistan (Abdullah) actually wanted a deal, even one that might leave him with less than he wanted. Unlike in Syria, the presence of the American military in Afghanistan gave Kerry a significant degree of authority. And unlike the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Afghanistan deal was not an effort to provide a comprehensive solution to a vast, complex conflict. It was limited in scope. It had a realistic goal, and that goal was achieved.

Alas, as the ceasefire fiascoes demonstrated, Kerry did not understand what made his work in Afghanistan a success. Instead, it seems only to have stoked his grand and foolish ambitions.

Kerry’s belief in endless negotiations is reminiscent of a quotation by Douglas Adams: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” It reinforces the perception abroad of America as an unreliable friend and easily distracted foe. And in the Middle East, it resulted in three unmitigated strategic disasters. Bashar al-Assad is firmly entrenched in power while the raging Syrian civil war has spilled over into Iraq. Israel fought a war in which, at least for a time, the government of the United States was treating Hamas’s interests as equal to its ally’s. Meanwhile, Iran has been directing and enabling the violence in both these places while throwing off the yoke of economic sanctions and reaching for a nuclear bomb. Kerry may have indeed established his legacy this summer. It is one that will be studied for lessons on how not to act and behave as a secretary of state.

About the Author

Seth Mandel is assistant editor of Commentary.

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