President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry appear to have run the table in Middle East diplomacy. An interim nuclear agreement with Iran has been reached, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are underway, and peace talks to end Syria’s civil war are slated to begin in January.
For an administration under siege domestically, press coverage declaring the triumph of Obama diplomacy over Bush-era militarism is a political godsend.
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When John Kerry succeeded Hillary Clinton as secretary of state in February, Clinton’s emotional departure from the State Department received blanket media coverage. Kerry’s arrival received next to none.
“So here’s the big question before the country and the world and the State Department after the last eight years,” Kerry said in a speech to State Department employees on his first day on the job. “Can a man actually run the State Department? I don’t know.”
As the crowd roared with laughter, Kerry pushed the joke too far.
“As the saying goes,” he said, “I have big heels to fill.”
Nearly three weeks later, Kerry’s first foreign-policy speech as secretary, an hour-long defense of diplomacy and foreign aid, was a flop. The Washington Post gave it 500 words. The New York Times ignored it. (He was also accused of accidentally inventing a new country called “Kyrzakhstan,” an apparent conflation of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.)
The nearly universal expectation was that Kerry’s tenure would be overshadowed by his predecessor’s, for a long list of reasons. For starters, he was arriving in Foggy Bottom when the country seemed to be withdrawing from the world. Exhausted by two long wars, Americans were wary of ambitious new foreign engagements—certainly of military ones, but of entangling diplomatic ones, too. Barack Obama’s administration, accelerating a process that had begun in the early 1960s under President Kennedy, was centralizing foreign-policy decision making in the White House’s National Security Council, marginalizing the State Department. Kerry hadn’t even been Obama’s first choice for the position, getting nominated only when the candidacy of United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice was derailed by her tenuous association with the Benghazi-consulate tragedy in 2012. (Rice ended up running the National Security Council.) The appetite for risk taking in the White House is never high, but after the Benghazi imbroglio, it was particularly low. Finally, Kerry, a defeated presidential candidate, was devoid of the sexiness that automatically attaches to a figure, like Hillary Clinton, who remains a legitimate presidential prospect. The consensus in Washington was that Kerry was a boring if not irrelevant man stepping into what was becoming a boring, irrelevant job.
Yet his time at the State Department has been anything but boring—and no one can argue his lack of relevance.
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John Kerry felt more threatened by his own administration’s partial aid “cut” to Egypt than Egypt’s generals did. Or so it seemed. In a visit to Cairo on November 3, America’s top diplomat insisted that the “aid issue is a very small issue,” as if to tell Egyptians not to worry—that it was something the U.S. had to do against its will, and that this slap on the wrist, like all the previous ones, too, would pass.
What was more concerning, however, was that Kerry felt the need to heap an inordinate amount of praise on Egypt’s military rulers, suggesting either a great deal of cynicism or the possibility that he hadn’t been briefed on Egyptian politics for weeks on end. “The roadmap is being carried out to the best of our perception,” Kerry said, referring to the military’s timetable for drafting a constitution and holding elections. “The roadmap [is moving] in the direction that everybody has been hoping for,” he added. In reality, Egypt, on almost any conceivable political indicator, is more repressive today than it was under the Mubarak regime. The sheer ferocity of the post-coup crackdown continues, with a slate of repressive laws recently announced in the guise of Egypt’s “war on terrorism.”
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Secretary of State John Kerry stumbled into a hornet’s nest with the Egypt slice of his 11-day trip to the Middle East and North Africa.
Someone should have advised Kerry that it’s simply too soon for a Scowcroft-goes-to-China maneuver—the tactic made famous by President George H.W. Bush’s efforts to get U.S.-China relations back on track after the Chinese regime’s bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square.
During his visit to Cairo on Sunday, which included a meeting with Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Kerry said nothing about the upcoming trial of the coup-ousted Mohammed Morsi, which began on Monday. In sending a message to Egypt’s military overlord that U.S.-Egypt strategic relations are vital and that America wants Egypt back in its fold, the secretary could be fueling the rise of another Mubarak, with enormous consequences for whether young Egyptians, whose ranks are swelling, choose violence or democratic methods to realize their collective goals.
Regrettably, it’s increasingly in vogue for some Egypt analysts to say that if a national election were held tomorrow, al-Sisi would win overwhelmingly.
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Anyone who talks in public says some things wrong. It’s not fair to seize on these inevitable slip-ups and screw-ups when you know what the person really “meant” to say. It’s also not productive, because an increasing gaffe-watch by the press makes public figures even more likely to muffle their thoughts in the gauze of protective bland-speak.
When one of these momentary stumbles nonetheless takes on a life of its own, it is usually because, innocent as it might be on its own, it crystallizes some larger impression people were developing. Most obvious examples: “depends what the meaning of ‘is’ is” / “which newspapers do I read? all of them!” / “voted for it before I voted against it” / “here’s my three-point list: 1, 2, ….”
Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement that Israeli and Palestinian officials had “reached an agreement that establishes a basis” for the resumption of direct peace talks is a badly needed foreign policy achievement for the Obama administration.
The talks are not yet finalized and seem unlikely to eventually succeed, but six months of shuttle diplomacy by Kerry is the first example of successful American diplomacy in the Middle East in several years.
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As President Obama decides who will succeed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., might get the short end of the stick once more.
Today in goofy things that make us laugh.