Jackson Diehl: Kerry's dangerous Mideast delusions
March 31. 2014 4:11PM
During a tour of the Middle East in November, Secretary of State John F. Kerry portrayed the region as on its way to a stunning series of breakthroughs, thanks to U.S. diplomacy. In Egypt, he said, "the roadmap" to democracy "is being carried out, to the best of our perception." In Syria, a peace conference would soon replace the Assad regime with a transitional government, because "the Russians and the Iranians . . . will make certain that the Syrian regime will live up to its obligation."
Last but hardly least, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was on its way to a final settlement — by April. "This is not mission impossible," insisted the secretary of state. "This can happen."
Some people heaped praise on Kerry for his bold ambitions, saying he was injecting vision and energy into the Obama administration's inert foreign policy. Others, including me, said he was delusional.
Five months have passed, and, sadly for Kerry and U.S. interests, the verdict is in: delusional. Egypt is under the thumb of an authoritarian general. The Syrian peace talks imploded soon after they began. Kerry is now frantically trying to prevent the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which are hanging by a thread — and all sides agree there will be no deal in April.
It might be argued that none of this is Kerry's fault. It was Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sissi who hijacked Egypt's promised political transition. It was the Assad regime that refused to negotiate its departure. It was Benjamin Netanyahu who kept building Jewish settlements in the West Bank. It was Mahmoud Abbas who refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
All true; and yet all along the way, Kerry — thanks to a profound misreading of the realities on the ground — was enabling the bad guys.
Start with Egypt. Since last summer the State Department and its chief have been publicly endorsing the fiction that the military coup against the elected government of Mohammed Morsi was aimed at "restoring democracy," as Kerry put it. As late as March 12, Kerry — spun by his friend Nabil Fahmy, the regime's slick foreign minister — declared that "I'm very, very hopeful that, in very short order, we'll be able to move forward" in certifying that Egypt was eligible for a full resumption of U.S. aid.
Twelve days later, an Egyptian court handed death sentences to 529 members of the Muslim Brotherhood after a two-day trial. Two days after that, Sissi appeared on television, in uniform, to announce that he would "run" for president.
Kerry was no less credulous of Vladimir Putin. Having taken office with the intention of boosting support for Syrian rebels as a way of "changing Assad's calculations," Kerry abruptly changed course last May after a visit to the Kremlin. Russia and the United States, he announced, would henceforth "cooperate in trying to implement" a transition from the Assad regime. "Our understanding," Mr. Kerry said of himself and Putin, "is very similar."
Only it wasn't. Putin, who loathes nothing more than U.S.-engineered regime change, spent the next nine months pouring weapons into Damascus, even as Kerry continued to insist that Moscow would force Assad to hand over power in Geneva. When the Geneva conference finally convened, Russia — to the surprise of virtually no one, other than Kerry — backed Assad's contention that the negotiations should be about combatting "terrorism," not a transitional government.
That brings us to the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire, which Kerry made his personal cause despite that the Obama administration had already tried and abjectly failed to broker a deal between Netanyahu and Abbas and that Israel and the Palestinian territories are currently an island of tranquility in a blood-drenched Middle East. Ignoring the counsel of numerous experts who warned that neither side was ready for a deal, Kerry lavished time on the two men, convinced that his political skills would bring them around.
Predictably, that didn't happen. The leaders have not budged a millimeter from the positions they occupied on Palestinian statehood a year ago, and Abbas has been strident in publicly rejecting terms Kerry tried to include in a proposed peace "framework."
Kerry offered an answer to my first critique of him in an interview with Susan Glasser of Politico: "I would ask" anyone "who was critical of our engagement: What is the alternative?" Well, the alternative is to address the Middle East as it really is. Recognize that Egypt's generals are reinstalling a dictatorship and that U.S. aid therefore cannot be resumed; refocus on resuscitating and defending Egypt's real democrats. Admit that the Assad regime won't quit unless it is defeated on the battlefield and adopt a strategy to bring about that defeat. Concede that a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace isn't possible now and look for more modest ways to build the groundwork for a future Palestinian state.In short, drop the delusions.
Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor for The Washington Post.