America’s Dummy Diplomacy
I know of no occupation other than diplomat in which a practitioner who consistently and embarrassingly fails at his job is rewarded with a pat on the back and many more attempts to cock things up. A surgeon who admits that he’s yet to save a patient on the slab will soon find himself seeking other means of employment. A certified public accountant whose clients are annually audited will eventually choose to pursue that lifelong dream of stand-up comedy. A web designer who can’t program a functioning website will go to work for the White House. But diplomacy, especially as conducted by the United States of late, seems to be a field in which competence and sapience are retrograde and one gets all the points simply for trying.
Right now a woman called Wendy Sherman is leading American efforts to get the mullahs of Iran to halt or slow their nuclear program in exchange for international sanctions relief. In October, Sherman told the Senate, “No deal is better than a bad deal.” Yet a lite over a week ago, she needed alerting from her French counterparts that she and her team were sleepwalking into a “jeu de dupes” with a pariah nation quite good at skullduggery and hard bargain-driving. Sherman, it bears mentioning, was also the negotiator responsible 13 years ago for a similar series of bad-faith dealmaking with Kim Jong-Il, designed to stop him from acquiring or building nuclear weapons. Now his son has got several, some of which he not long ago threatened to launch at the United States. When the elder Kim expired in 2011, Sherman describedthe midget dictator of the world’s only remaining Stalinist slave state as “smart and a quick problem-solver,” and also as “witty and humorous. Our overall impression was very different from the way he was known to the outside world.” Iran’s foreign minister could give this woman the finger in Geneva and she’d probably call him “playful.”tl
Another diplomat who has been too voluble and visible for his own good is Ryan Crocker, the former US ambassador to Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, in whose performance in these roles was characterized by several Beltway observers of my acquaintance using an easy reconfiguration of his surname. Indeed, Crocker has recently suggested that the only solution for Syria is to “contain” a crisis that has now precipitated terrorist attacks in Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq, and so far led to the arrest of Jabhat al-Nusra jihadis for planning attacks in Kosovo. Al-Qaeda’s largest safe haven in history lies just south of the border of a NATO member, and several US intelligence officials are on record as saying that this is hardly a manageable or containable state of affairs.
Crocker’s got other funny ideas about what happens in this part of the world. In his extraordinary New Yorker profile of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, Dexter Filkins interviewed the ex-ambassador about many things including his immediate post-9/11 role as a senior State Department official trying to quietly secure Iranian assistance for the US war against the Taliban. Crocker told Filkins that Suleimani, a man who would later boast about killing US soldiers in Iraq and who is today overseeing the construction of a 100,000-strong sectarian militia in Syria, was deep down thinking “[m]aybe it’s time to rethink our relationship with the Americans” and might have even been lured into a rapprochement with the Great Satan – until, that is, George W. Bush gave his “Axis of Evil” speech and included Iran in that axis. “We were just that close,” Crocker said. “One word in one speech changed history.” One quote in a New Yorker article gave Suleimani the laugh of his life.
Still, no one beats the game of celebrated statecraft-bungling better than John Kerry. The Secretary of State has recently been on the receiving end of quite a lot of press, some of it hostile, such as Jackson Diehl’s withering editorial in the Washington Post and John McCain’s “human wrecking ball” comment. But much of it is written in a journalistic style that curiously resembles Foreign Service communiqués expressing “cautious optimism” about events universally seen in hysterically pessimistic terms. An entire lexicon of euphemism appears to have been invented to suit the e-for-effort, atta-boy spin-doctoring needs of America’s globe-trotting Walter Mitty. This New York Times headline, for example, describes Kerry as “active and improvising,” which is how I’d describe a drunken uncle practicing loose gallantry at Thanksgiving. Consider: “Mr. Kerry’s effort to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians is still an uphill struggle.” A climb of Mount Kilimanjaro is an uphill struggle.
Kerry has had no shortage of bloomers in a very short tenure as top diplomat, which he seems to assess by the number of air miles he’s traveled or perhaps by the minutes he’s been kept waiting by Vladimir Putin and Prince Bandar. I wish he’d stay home more. In Pakistan last August, Kerry said that Egypt’s military was “restoring democracy,” which restoration began on July 4th, while Kerry was aboard his yacht in Nantucket. Just this week, he claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood “stole” the Tahrir revolution, a judgment I’d actually agree with if US policy toward Egypt reflected the fact when Mohamed Morsi was sitting in the presidential palace and not in a jail cell. Neither remark, clearly aimed at assuaging the junta in Cairo, seems to have made much progress with Gen. Sisi, who is now hurriedly cozying up to the Kremlin as an alternative arms dealer and ally of the old-new Egypt.
Even Kerry’s “victories” have been wrapped in defeat. Hours after he announced this week that an agreement with Hamid Karzai had been “finalized” to allow a US military presence to remain in Afghanistan after most troops withdraw in 2014, Karzai told his loya jirga that no such deal will be signed by him until after the upcoming Afghan presidential election next year, by which time preparations for a residual garrison will need to have been made already.
Still, the collapsing scenery isn’t always Kerry’s fault given how poorly he’s been treated by his boss. President Obama evidently “marveled” at the secretary’s ability to withstand seven hours of Benjamin Netanyahu in one sitting but didn’t bother to include him in the Oval Office meetingin which Obama decided to defer airstrikes on Assad’s regime to Congress. And this after Kerry delivered two excellent Churchillian war speeches on Syria. The Times says that both men, now jointly presiding over the angering and alienating of seemingly every US ally in the world, actually helped each other at the expense of foreign policy: “[Kerry’s] Syria diplomacy, while face-saving for Mr. Obama, has left the United States woefully short of its stated goal of persuading Bashar al-Assad to yield power.”
In fact, that diplomacy abased Obama, gave Putin an unnecessary victory, and led to Assad’s ignominious re-legitimatization by the United States, which in turn has allowed the regime to regain more strategic territory and attend the so-called Geneva II peace conference – another half-baked Kerry confection – in a position of greater strength than a similarly-abased opposition. Now comes news that no state wants to take possession and destroy Syria’s chemical stockpiles, assuming they can safely be transported out of the country. So the new bright idea is to destroy them at sea aboard a barge, a process that is “unprecedented” given the size of these stockpiles and which will lead to dumping of run-off materials into some poor body of water. (The Allies dumped Nazi chemical weapons and agents into the Baltic Sea after World War II; today, the shores of Poland face an ecological calamity some environmental scientists say may outdo Chernobyl.)
Putting such details aside, Kerry remains dogged in his belief that it was America that did the outfoxing on Syria, as this lengthy, illuminating, and often unintentionally hilarious profile of him by David Rohde, reveals.
Rohde is a first-class reporter, but with a subject this rich, he can’t help but bury a few ledes. This mystical quote, delivered by Kerry, occurs rather near the end of the piece yet probably deserves more attention than anything else:
“Look, stability–peace and stability – change a region. My vision is that, if you can make peace, if you can get Israel and Palestine resolved and can get the Iranian threat of a nuclear weapon put to bed appropriately – even if Syria didn’t calm down – if you get those two pieces or one piece of that, you’ve got a hugely-changed dynamic in a region that is in turmoil. And if you take just the Palestinian-Israeli situation, you have the potential to make peace with 57 nations – 35 Muslim nations and 22 Arab nations. If the issue is resolved, they will recognize Israel.”
Peace with 57 nations is nice work if you can get it. But if Kerry thinks that that’s where the Middle East is headed right now, one wonders where the hell he’s been with all that traveling.