Commentary

John Kerry shows up whenever there is a chance that talking will dampen a crisis

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US Secretary of State John Kerry testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, April 8, 2014.

Credit:

SAUL LOEB

OWL’S HEAD, Maine — Indefatigable John Kerry had a flight pattern last week more erratic than the missing Malaysian airplane. In his effort to tamp down crises, he was returning to Washington from Saudi Arabia, where he had accompanied President Obama in smooth-talking the grumpy ally when, at a refueling stop in Ireland, Kerry did a U-turn for a hastily arranged Paris meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov.

The Paris meeting seemed to yield little on the Ukrainian front. No matter, it was just a way station for Kerry en route to another hastily scheduled response to a different crisis meeting in Israel before returning to Brussels.

Peripatetic and indefatigable are e apt adjectives for Kerry, now entering his second year as secretary of state. Critics John McCain and his even less appealing Senate side-kick Lindsay Graham come quickly to mind. They look at the number of crises around the world and blame Obama, claiming he allowed the US to forego its role of policeman of the world. They ignore that at the apex of our role as world's cop, under George W. Bush, we gave global law enforcement, US-style, a generation-long black eye.

The basic problem is that the world is a considerably more complex place than it was during the Cold War. And the US simply doesn't have the ability, even if it still had the interest, to play the referee, willing to impose the rules by force in such a multi-faceted game.

Bush's disastrous forays into Iraq and Afghanistan taught us lessons, forgotten since Vietnam. A Bush apologist could argue that if we hadn't tested the waters at a time of our own choosing, we might very well be bogged down now militarily in Syria with even more disastrous results.

The experience of Iraq and Afghanistan remain relevant in at least two ways: just because the US spends more annually on its military than the next 10 or 12 nations combined does not mean we can easily use our military might to control faraway countries in the midst of civil wars or political upheaval. Nor does it mean that what goes on in every country or even the vast majority of countries is of strategic importance to us.

Crimea is a fine example. As has been well acknowledged, Crimea, as the site of Russia's only warm water naval base, is of vital strategic interest to them — and of hardly any interest to us.

While none of our hard-liners favored a US-military response to Putin's aggression in the Crimea, it hasn't prevented them from taking repeated potshots at Obama: his weakness encouraged Putin's aggression; his lack of leadership prevented a more unified European response; and sanctions, his ultimate response, were too late and too weak.

In fact, Putin was clearly reacting to a changed situation in the Ukraine, brought about by the overthrow of its pro-Russian government, and not by the implementation of some long-planned scheme.

He would have moved to protect a perceived threat to his Crimean naval base under almost any circumstances. Good for Obama for not escalating the crisis, and for Kerry for showing up whenever and wherever for talks with Lavrov.

Crimea will remain in Russia's hands, where it was for nearly three centuries. Putin has increased his popularity dramatically among the Russian electorate to a percentage unheard of for virtually any modern US president. But he has weakened himself for the foreseeable future in the international arena in a way that his natural gas exports will not offset. For the old KGB hand, a short-term victory and a long-term problem.

Then, Kerry headed for further talks with Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Palestinian President Abbas to try to forestall a complete breakdown of the initiative he began last summer.

Returning to Israel, it seemed that Kerry had fallen into the traditional trap of wanting to extend the talks for their own sake rather than for any but a naive hope of a successful outcome.

Focusing on an agreed-upon "framework" as an alternative to an unavailable deal was just postponing the inevitable. And the Israelis were on to him, suddenly bringing up a demand for the early release of Jonathan Pollard, the American the Israelis paid to spy for them, in exchange, basically, for continuing the talks.

At an early stage of the negotiations, the Israelis had agreed to a series of Palestinian prisoner releases, the last one scheduled by March 31.
When the Israelis added Pollard into the equation, in effect reneging on the prisoner release, the Palestinians decided they had had enough.

In a move that caught Kerry and the Israelis off-guard, Abbas announced he was submitting applications to join a variety of international agencies. The Israelis, predictably, had a strongly negative reaction to Abbas's announcement, as they fear it is the first step in the Palestinians eventually joining the International Criminal Court and bringing charges against Israel for its continued occupation of the West Bank, which virtually every country in the world considers illegal.

Kerry left Jerusalem for Brussels for further discussions with NATO foreign ministers about the Ukraine crisis. His plan had been to fly back once again to Israel the next day to conclude the Pollard deal, thus getting Israel on board with further negotiations.

But with the Palestinian announcement, Kerry's negotiations are realistically on life-support. Events in the Middle East, as the last few days have shown, are always unpredictable, but the only thing left of Kerry's peace foray, it appears, is the finger pointing, which is already in high gear.

But there could yet be a positive outcome to Kerry's initiative if, when the talks are officially dead, he does a public post-mortem in which he reveals where the two sides had been in agreement and what the sticking points were. And then, he and Obama announce the US's own specific and detailed plan for a comprehensive two-state solution. Such a plan will, necessarily, involve positions that both the Palestinians and the Netanyahu government are opposed to.

Even were the US to publicly present its own plan, it's almost impossible to imagine Obama would be willing to exert the kind of serious pressure necessary to bring them around, such as withholding even a part of our annual $3 billion aid to Israel.

Even less imaginable is Congressional support of such pressure. And with congressional elections on the horizon, and pundits suggesting that the Democrats could lose the Senate, Obama is not about to take on Congress and Netanyahu. Still, for the US to finally take a detailed public position would itself be a positive step.

Obama has recently discussed the potential for the growing isolation of Israel as its West Bank occupation continues into its fifth decade. Most Israelis realize the status quo is unsustainable, but like the US public's reaction to global warming, it's something they'll deal with tomorrow.

Tomorrow looms. If Israelis were forced to discuss openly among themselves a detailed US peace plan, it might in fact help them face the future more forthrightly.

Kerry's failure at the peace table, if coupled finally with a public and detailed US peace plan, could itself become a key element in moving Israel in the direction it needs to go.

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a Foreign Service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.