walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
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Published on: February 2, 2014
Diplomacy Update
Overselling and (So Far) Under-delivering

From Syria to Iran and to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Secretary Kerry’s boosters have managed to cleverly market his moves as genuine achievements.

In recent weeks I have on at least three occasions run across the statement that, if I may paraphrase, John Kerry has accomplished more as Secretary of State in four months than Hillary Clinton accomplished in four years. What to make of such remarks? The first step is to establish their provenance.

These statements, which are sometimes adorned with specifics and sometimes not, are specifically political in nature. They come not from Republicans who, though they may have motive to deflate Hillary Clinton politically, do not often see Secretary Kerry’s record thus far as so obviously praiseworthy. Rather, they come from Democrats who think of themselves as being to the left of Hillary Clinton (and her pro-Iraq War vote) and who seem to be getting behind the idea of a primary challenge by Elizabeth Warren.

The left-liberal gentry despise Ms. Clinton so much that some of them are even willing to buy in to the ridiculous GOP accusation that she was guilty of some heinous dereliction of duty in the Benghazi September 2012 debacle. Such people, who apparently think that all discrete low- and mid-level diplomatic security decisions come to the desk of the Secretary of State, have not the foggiest idea what the Secretary actually does on a day-to-day basis. This is a little like expecting the chairman of General Motors to personally concern himself with a particular snarky robot. I’m not among those who think Ms. Clinton was an especially good Secretary of State; she did the right thing, however, by accepting responsibility but not blame for Benghazi. If she bore any blame, it was for supporting that foolish war in the first place, which is what led to Benghazi. But that’s another story.

Hating Hillary for her Iraq War votes while praising John Kerry is a little peculiar, true, since John Kerry voted for the war before he voted against it, after which he explained why both votes were correct. But this form of peculiarity is nothing new or even especially unusual. President Obama himself chose key first-term cabinet officials (Clinton and Gates) and a Vice President to boot who either voted for or otherwise supported the 2002 Senate Resolution regarding Iraq that he vociferously opposed.

Peculiar or not, the digs at Hillary, in order to work politically as intended, have to fall upon an audience that thinks the Syria chemical weapons agreement, Geneva II, the P5+1-Iran deal, and the search for an Israeli-Palestinian FAPS (framework agreement for a peace settlement, as the current lingo has it) are all marvelous achievements. The diggers have done their homework. There is in fact a large audience of this sort, even if most of it is not composed of likely Elizabeth Warren boosters. It is composed of typical casual American observers who cannot distinguish between the terms diplomacy and statecraft, or between the terms government and regime, and who cannot even state the plain dictionary meanings of the terms country, nation, state, and nation-state. My guess is that these typical, casual American observers make up about 98 percent of adult Americans, and include nearly all members of the American political class as well. Needless to say, they include the vast majority of voters, too.

And why should it be otherwise? What do most people care about such things? Why should they care, here in the unusually safe, secure, and wealthy World Island we call North America? How does it affect their daily lives? (Well, actually, it does, but never mind that for now.) So the great majority of Americans who are aware of some international news, or some news having to do with U.S. foreign policy, are what might be called accidental or incidental observers of U.S. diplomacy. They are sideswiped from time to time by headlines in the local newspaper or, more rarely, USA Today. More likely, they are exposed to a ten-second drive-by remark on the evening news, or see mention of, say, a civil war in Syria in the periphery of their celeb culture-heavy internet feed. My guess is that the number of written or spoken words involved in any one of these encounters is less than 50, and very often less than 25—a headline and a slug, and that’s about it.

If that’s accurate, then a fair number of Americans know that John Kerry achieved an agreement in late September, with the aid of Russia, to rid Syria of all its chemical weapons. That made the television news crawl at the time, so even a guy sitting in a sports bar somewhere watching hoops and working on his third “lite” beer might have seen that. But it’s as sure as fowl poop in a chicken coop that he didn’t know much about the bizarre sequence of events that preceded the agreement. And he probably hasn’t seen a single word about what’s happened since.

Our sports bar denizen (let’s call him Joe) doesn’t know about the protracted delays in implementing any of the agreement. He doesn’t realize that the deal contradicted prior U.S. policy, since it made Assad a partner in the operation rather than an object to be removed from power. He doesn’t realize that the Syrian regime did not declare all its chemical weapons stocks, programs, and fabrication facilities in the first place, and that we lack independent means of verifying the accuracy of the Syrian declaration. He’s not aware of the desperate discussions about how to denature these poisons, who would do it and at what cost. He doesn’t know that less than 4 percent of the stuff has so far been touched at all, even after all this time. And most important, he doesn’t realize that, since Friday, the Syrian government is denying ever having agreed to destroy six fabrication facilities; it now says it will only deactivate them—a process that can be reversed in about 72 hours.

He might know, however, that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013. And if he does, he probably thinks of the Nobel Peace Prize as kind of a good thing, as a vaguely positive seal-of-good-peacekeeping symbol. So, way to go Secretary Kerry!

Nor, of course, would it be even remotely reasonably to expect Joe or his sister Jane, with her copy of USA Today folded under her arm as she returns from running an errand for office or home, to know that the Syrian government prides itself on its ability to lie to gullible foreigners. The Syrian regime has lied to every U.S. administration since that of Dwight D. Eisenhower. I once told the story, here in this space, of how, way back in 1974, Hafez al-Assad sought to humiliate Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and his trusty sidekick Joseph Sisco through almost endless negotiations over prospective Syrian attendance at a Geneva Conference held after the 1973 Middle East war. Assad-the-father kept the discussions at the procedural, shape-of-the-table level. When those procedures were finally agreed, after months of agonizing talks and the waste of thousands of gallons of aviation fuel, Assad informed the Americans that he never had any intention of attending in the first place. We had been diddled. Assad-the-son knows this history. Joe and Jane do not. Neither, probably, does Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren. And John Kerry?

Same with Geneva II. Joe and Jane may be aware that the United States and Russia convened a diplomatic summit in Switzerland last week in an effort to stop the Syrian civil war. That was pretty big news for a while before the summit began. Even Diane Rehm had someone on the radio talking about it.

But is Joe or Jane aware that this conference never had a chance to accomplish anything except divide and harm the opposition, buy time for the regime’s war machine and its Russian and Iranian suppliers, and get more people killed as all sides rushed to improve their battlefield positions in advance of the meeting? Is he aware that the pre-conference attempts to generate local ceasefires were cynically abused by the regime to effect surrenders? Here the bleating of the so-called London 11 group of opposition-supporting states, led by the United States, in the wake of the conference’s complete (and utterly predictable) failure, is noteworthy: “We express outrage at the maintaining, by the regime, of its ‘starve or surrender’ strategy.”

Did these outraged people really not know better before this sham of a conference began, despite evidence everywhere to be found?  One is reminded of Sir Harold Nicolson’s famous description of Neville Chamberlain and his top aide:

They stepped into diplomacy with the bright faithfulness of two curates entering a pub for the first time; they did not observe the differences between a social gathering and a rough-house; nor did they realize that the tough guys assembled did not speak or understand their language.

But Joe and Jane are unlikely to hear or read any of this. Instead, aided by the President’s most recent State of the Union eyewash, they’re more liable to think, “Well gosh, Kerry tried, and did his best—and it’s not over yet.”

Right: Insofar as any follow-on diplomacy to Geneva II can yet be discerned, it seems to be basing itself on a narrative that goes like this: The Russians have to be embarrassed by the conduct of the Syrian regime in Switzerland, and so it will now press Assad and his associates for concessions. This, the narrative goes, has been the plan all along, for we knew from the start that only the Russians had the leverage over Assad to deliver a diplomatic settlement.

Note that these are same Russians that Kerry has chosen in the past few days to scream at over Moscow’s interference in Kiev. Never mind that Kerry and the rest of the Administration had gone AWOL when the real preparatory work concerning Ukraine’s political trajectory was being done. And far, far more important, these are same Russians who are, we are recently given to understand, repeatedly violating the 1987 INF Treaty.

This is a big, big, deal. Without going into detail about SS-20s and P-2s and the context created by the nuclear freeze movement and all the rest, the INF Treaty of 1987, the only U.S.-Soviet Cold War-era arms control agreement that ever actually eliminated any nuclear weapons—indeed, an entire class of them—was the geopolitical equivalent at the time of the Berlin Airlift. It totally changed the sense of psychological momentum in Europe from one favoring the USSR to one favoring the United States. It was a key event in the peaceful end to the Cold War itself.

As Joe and Jane might know, but probably don’t, the Russians have been violating it now for more than a year. How might they know? Because the New York Times ran a front-page, above-the-fold story on it. But I have not detected any sub-elite reportage.  The Russians are doing this, it seems to me, for three interlocking reasons: because they can (since they think, correctly, that the Obama Administration will not do anything about it); because it deepens the wedge separating the United States from the “New Europe” members of NATO, and indeed is aimed at the de facto reversal of the expansion of NATO; and because the substitute missile shield we are building in East/Central Europe would (if we ever really build and deploy it) degrade Russian military capabilities, whereas the original since-abandoned deployment scheme would not have.

So, back to the point, Secretary Kerry apparently thinks he can depend on the Russians, who are cheating on one arms control agreement, to get the Syrians to stop cheating on another one, and also make life-threatening concessions to the rebel opposition at the same time. And the Russians are going to do this for us even as Kerry is fecklessly berating them over an issue (Ukraine) against which we have close to zero leverage, but they have, in their own view, vital national interests.

Now, it’s way too much to ask Joe and Jane to connect the dots among various diplomatic portfolios. In these times, when technology abets the segmentation and fragmentation of narrativity itself, connecting dots is rapidly becoming a lapsed craft. But one sort of does expect the Secretary of State to be able to do this.

Similarly, it’s true that our sports bar denizen may have seen something about the nuclear deal with Iran reached in November. But, similarly, neither Joe nor Jane has heard anything about what’s happened since. They have no way easy way of knowing that the deal, announced to much celebration, wasn’t really finished at the time. They don’t know that it took a series of so-called technical negotiations to ready the agreement for implementation, and that the Iranians walked out of the first session in a huff. They don’t know that the agreement, reached in November, only actually began implementation on January 20, and no one knows for sure if the Iranians have really done as promised in the past dozen days.

They also probably do not know any details—that the deal only lasts a scant six months, during which it is perfectly licit for Iran to continue to enrich uranium on its own soil. They probably don’t appreciate the fact that even the President, who continues to warn how fragile this process is, knows that this achievement isn’t worth much yet. So when some op-ed writer just drops mention of the P5+1-Iran agreement in a list of John Kerry’s achievements, Joe and Jane just nod and offer a quiet, “Way to go, guy. Another one for the home team.”

And finally, the Israelis and Palestinians: It’s not clear if Joe and Jane have heard much about the negotiations that Secretary Kerry resurrected back near the start of his tenure. If they saw something about it back then, any substance has probably dropped way below the radar of their February 2014 consciousness. But even at that time they probably couldn’t have remembered that the cessation in direct negotiations was caused by rookie blunders made by the White House back in 2009—blunders that forced the Palestinian delegation to make demands of Israel regarding housing starts in East Jerusalem that the Palestinians had themselves never before set as pre-conditions to negotiation. They would not have known that the Obama Administration in its first term therefore had the worst record in this area than any Administration since that of Richard Nixon.

Never mind that. Kerry deserves credit for persistence, for craft, for hiring talented assistants, and for preventing leaks—a genuine sign of serious work being done. The U.S. Ambassador to Israel recently lifted hopes of a breakthrough by claiming that senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders in these talks have said things to each other that they have never before said. I have no doubt that probably by March, coincident (but not coincidental) with a planned Presidential trip that includes Riyadh, there will be announced, again to great fanfare, a FAPS.

Now, what is a FAPS? I’m not sure. Some people have been arguing for years—in error in my view—that since the two sides will never develop the mutual trust to make peace themselves, the United States should announce publicly its view of a settlement and, if necessary, impose it on the parties. Other have argued instead that the United States needs to be the insurance policy between the two sides, making up with our own promises what the two sides can’t quite do for themselves. In other words, the U.S. role is to supply the difference between a pier and a bridge, reducing their risks so that they will venture forward in expectation of getting somewhere better than where they are now. A FAPS, as its definition is evolving in practice, looks to be a calculated compromise between the two points of view—more explicit than past Administrations have been willing to go, but not detailed enough to warrant an imposition if one side or the other bristles. I know the fellow who is in charge of this business, and I know that in the past he has opposed the imposition strategy. I suspect he’s looking for a Goldilocks solution, and if he can’t get it he’s looking to buy time until maybe he can.

I hope this works, but I’m skeptical. My sense is that the sides are still about as far apart as ever on all the key issues. I’m disappointed to hear that Kerry buys into the recent Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which strikes me as a gratuitous and costly addition to the negotiating burden. I’m happy in theory that the Palestinian side has apparently agreed to allow discussion of compensation for Jews who left Arab countries after 1947-48, but in practice this is liable to raise an enormous can of worms given the diversity of the historical cases, and, like the “Jewish” state business, raise the cost to Israel in other ways of getting a deal that is sound on security grounds.

Most of all, I’m worried that the achievement of a FAPS will raise expectations that are bound to be frustrated by a recalcitrant reality. If you oversell what can be achieved in diplomacy, you pay a very high price later on if the deal falls apart. That’s what happened at Camp David back in 2000. That’s what I fear will happen again.

For the two sides to agree on a FAPS, it has to be ambiguous enough to allow for their genuine disagreements to be papered over. But it can’t be so ambiguous that it obviously says nothing. This can get tricky.  It can only proceed by dint of a very generous supply of weasel words, by simply eliminating issues on which no bridging language can be found, and by allowing both sides to register reservations. This thing could end up looking like a block of Swiss cheese with more holes than cheese. We’re bound to find out, because neither side wants to be responsible for the negotiations breaking down at this point. What they’re doing, therefore, is positioning themselves so that when things do get ugly, they can plausibly blame the other side for failure. We know this, of course, and are trying to minimize the reach of this ploy. It can’t be a whole lot of fun doing this day in and day out.

And what’s all this for anyway? The activity itself is useful, maybe, in diminishing the wrath of the House of Saud toward the United States, and possibly in creating some useful precedents for future negotiations. But my sense is that the Secretary of State (and the Secretary of Defense and, maybe, the President) are all maxi-linkers—people who believe that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will have very powerful and positive effects on all the region’s problems. It won’t. It’s worth doing for its own sake, and it certainly won’t hurt if it works out well, but it’s likely to generate more short- and mid-term violence from die-hard rejectionists even if it does work through, and it won’t have major positive ramifications beyond Israel’s immediate neighborhood. So even this achievement, on the off chance it is achieved, will be much more modest than often supposed.

Joe and Jane don’t know and probably don’t care about all this (unless they are Jewish, of Arab decent or are Evangelicals). So when they see video of Kerry on the evening news, smiling with Israelis and Arabs all around, they get a nice, warm and fuzzy, if highly temporary, sensation of a good deed being done.  Atta boy, John.

There’s one more thing Joe and Jane, as Americans, tend not to know. For the umpteenth time—and I apologize to my regular readers for repeating this yet again—diplomacy and force are complements, not opposites. It was a bit frustrating, let me tell you by way of a personal anecdote, to have worked for Colin Powell during a time mainly of war, and then still be there when Condoleezza Rice came strolling onto the Seventh Floor, declaring in January 2005 that “the time for diplomacy is now.” Were we supposed to take from that remark the notion that Powell and Rich Armitage and everyone else—by exerting themselves to prevent war from breaking out in South Asia, for example—had just been sitting around the office war-mongering for the previous four years? If the balance within the complement had been off during those years, it certainly wasn’t Powell’s fault. It is, after all, the President’s foreign policy, because in a democracy he’s the one who gets elected.

So how should Joe and Jane think about diplomacy? Well, there’s plenty of advice to choose from. Consider David Mitchell’s view, expressed through the voice of one of his characters in Cloud Atlas (p. 444):

Oh, diplomacy. . . it mops up war’s spillages; legitimizes its outcomes; gives the strong state the means to impose its will on a weaker one, while saving its fleets and battalions for weightier opponents. Only professional diplomats, inveterate idiots, and women view diplomacy as a long-term substitute for war.

While Mitchell’s instincts point in the right direction, I think he goes too far. So let Henry Kissinger nail the point down. In the January 21, 2007 Washington Post he wrote as follows (Joe, Jane, pay attention now, please, because I’m not going to tell you again):

. . . it is not possible to jettison the military instrument and rely, as some argue, on purely political means. A freestanding diplomacy is an ancient American illusion. History offers few examples of it. The attempt to separate diplomacy and power results in power lacking direction and diplomacy being deprived of incentives.

John Kerry, you might want to take note as well. If you do, and if the President lets you, you might actually achieve something of value during the next three years. You haven’t yet.

show comments
  • Brian Stahl

    Kerry is chasing the wind in Israel. Netanyahu’s government is unwilling to budge on any important matters barring any domestic or foreign reason to do so, and a super-ambiguous FAPS will end with both sides violating each other’s understanding of the document. This is what happened during the “decade of peace talks” in the 90’s and it ended with greater distrust on both sides, and worsened Israeli-Palestinian relations.

  • Fat_Man

    “the ridiculous GOP accusation that she was guilty of some heinous dereliction of duty in the Benghazi September 2012 debacle.”

    She lied. She knew what happened and she lied, and she is still lying. She lied straight faced to the parents of the dead guards. She is a liar, and she should be shunned by every honest man.

    • Kavanna

      And every honest woman, for that matter.

  • Kavanna

    “Underdelivering” is polite. The fact is, Kerry’s a flop, and his president’s policies are just an endless string of costly failures. The costs are borne by others, so it has limited domestic impact. Unlike Bush, Obama is not even capable of recognizing his own failures for what they are. Kerry did admit just today that Obama’s Syria policy (and, by implication, his Iran policy) is, in fact, a failure. At least Kerry is better in that respect.

    But, with his crude “goycott” threats against Israel, Kerry has proved that he’s on-board with a thuggish administration and president — the Chicago way — everybody under the bus!

    He’s just proven again what was so evident in 2004, that he’s a patrician airhead with intellectual pretensions. Never forget what transpired in 2004: Kerry was desperate to hide his Yale transcript, not because of his record in Vietnam, but because he didn’t want it revealed that he did no better as a student than “that dumb cowboy,” Shrub.

  • Anthony

    “Connecting the dots is rapidly becoming a lapsed craft” in more ways than foreign policy (statecraft and diplomacy). The hypothetical 98% are casual observers vis-a-vis most significant socio-economic matters I would hazard (and violation of INF Treaty is big deal and warrants more than casual notice).

  • johngbarker

    If Professor Garfinkle were to offer a course called, “How the world really works.” which books would the students be assigned?

  • ljgude

    My sense is that both Hillary and Kerry would have pursued quite different foreign policies as president. They have both found themselves trying to execute the policies of a post colonial college professor. I thought Hillary got suckered into trying to execute a foreign policy she never would have pursued herself and ended up looking grumpy and constipated. But she may be dumber than I think, because i remember seeing her expressing shock that our friends had done this (Benghazi) to us. But perhaps she was just lying to protect her boss. Kerry looks like he did running for president – going through the motions without really getting what he is doing. I have heard his say some reasonably intelligent things on CSPAN when he was just a Senator, so maybe he is not as bad as he appears. Obama seems to me to have zero understanding that military power and diplomacy are complementary. I think Adam nails that one beautifully. I think we are in for three more years of undermining American power and conspicuous failure to pursue American interests.

  • cammo99

    The author is curt in assigning any responsibility to Hillary for an absence of action prior to and during the Benghazi attack. She must bear some of the responsibility, the problem is she like her boss were too busy trying to evade what they did wrong to learn anything and then make real progress. As for the inanity that the DNC is out to get Hillary, she is still the DNC’s best pick for a Presidential run, they haven’t hung her out to dry yet.
    The main problem with this analysis is its omit of the role Obama’s pro-Islamic policies play even in that it helps explain why Obama is courteously following along sucking the wake of the Russian Navy. Pro-Islam policy ignored risks taken in Libya, ignored the presence of Al-Qaeda cells, ignores Morsi’s Muslim brotherhood’s relationship and its implications in imposing draconian sharia law and replaces civil courts, and this report ignores the very real progress that has been made to characterize Israel as an apartheid state while the PA regularly commits violence to as great a degree on its own citizens, whether in firing live ammo into rioting and stone throwing crowds or ignoring violence committed in the name of honor and Allah. Watching the pro-Islamic policies of Obama move forward is like watching a blind man stumble about in a room where all the furniture has been moved.
    While Obama acts as the great power loser at the beginning of the 21st Century the Russians are only too happy to have their oil ventures with the Kurds go forward, supply the Egyptian Army with weapons in place of American delays, while securing berths for their Navy in Alexandria, they have turned the balance for Iran, Assad and have managed to negotiate an oil contract with Turkey in which they will provide 100% of their needs. A necessity created by the ignored Russian invasion of Georgia negating the Israeli, Georgian, Turkish, and Stan nations aspirations to share in oil derived from their own pipeline.
    Obama must be in hog heaven oops, did mean to pen him with unclean beasts. But he has enabled Islamic Revolutions and the rebirth of the Russian dream of greater presence in the region and its own ability to project Naval Power in this vital oil region simultaneously the author got that much dead right.

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