Diplomacy Redux: Kerry's Opportunity, Obama's Test

A tour of the U.S. position in the Middle East.

Since he succeeded Hillary Clinton last February as the country’s sixty-eighth secretary of state, John Kerry has quickly built on relationships forged with foreign leaders during his Senate years to position diplomacy as the principal tool in addressing some of the most consequential international security challenges currently facing the United States.

It is a big change. While Mrs. Clinton earned plaudits for her tireless travels, the sixty-seventh secretary will be remembered more for talking about diplomacy’s importance than for actually using it to great effect. By contrast Mr. Kerry’s legacy as Secretary of State is already sure to be defined by the success or failure of major U.S. diplomatic initiatives to secure compromises from parties to the Middle East’s most deep-rooted conflicts.

Three simultaneous negotiations now offer the prospect of achieving strategically important objectives: one to produce an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution; another to rid Syria of its chemical-weapons arsenal; and the third to achieve an accord with Iran under which Tehran would forego developing nuclear weapons.

If Diplomacy Succeeds

The opportunity is hard to overstate. Officially ending sixty-five years of Palestinian grievance while according Israel universally-recognized borders—issues which, whatever one’s views, have soured Arab attitudes toward the US and complicated US-Israel relations for generations—would fulfill the declared but unmet policy aspiration of every American president since Truman. Eliminating a large chemical-weapons arsenal that has been used repeatedly despite international prohibitions would restore the crucial deterrent effect of the Chemical Weapons Convention, undermined by the Syrian regime's lethal chemical munitions attacks on its own civilian neighborhoods.

Above all, reliably halting Iran’s nuclear weapons quest without resort to military force would not only make good on the ‘reddest’ of President Obama’s much-remarked ‘red lines,’ it would forestall a Persian-Arab nuclear arms race astride the oil-rich Persian Gulf, a scenario made all the more combustible by Sunni-Shia sectarian strife and Israel’s unpredictable response to proliferating nuclear threats in its midst.

President Obama has much riding on the outcome of these negotiations. Not only has he staked the credibility of his office on redressing the nuclear and chemical weapons threats posed by Iran and Syria, respectively, but he has courted increased strategic risk in precipitously withdrawing forces from Iraq and (soon) Afghanistan and exhibiting only perfunctory concern over large defense sector cutbacks imposed by sequestration. Achieving significant security benefits through negotiation, while not necessarily compensating for these risks, would enhance U.S. influence at a time when many in the world are questioning America’s political and economic vitality and its appetite for continued global leadership.

One could envision the President, with Middle East successes in hand, making high diplomacy a more meaningful dimension of the Asia “pivot,” seeking to defuse escalating tensions between China and its neighbors by mediating conflicting territorial claims—as Secretary Kerry proposed in his recent Asia travels—and probing North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un for more reliable undertakings than his father and grandfather ever produced.

Recognition is widespread that the U.S. has over-relied on ‘hard power’ in recent years, and civilian policy tools—not having demonstrated comparable potency since perhaps the 1995 Dayton Agreement that ended hostilities in Bosnia—have lost stature and credibility compared to the military. Congressional funding has reflected the belief that DoD, alone among cabinet departments, has the wherewithal to generate game-changing impact on security challenges overseas. A demonstration that geopolitical dealmaking is not a lost art in Washington would be salutary on many levels.

Is the US Up to the Challenge?

To say that success could bring great benefits is not to predict it. Two impediments that Secretary Kerry has—justifiably, in the author’s view—chosen to disregard are, first, the perennial penchant of White House advisors to shield the President from political exposure to high-profile endeavors carrying the risk of failure, and second, the potential that congressional partisanship—ignoring the old ‘water’s edge’ boundary—could impede US negotiators’ ability to deliver on a major agreement.

The stakes in all three of these arenas justify taking political risk, but as in military endeavors, clarity about the long-term stakes for all concerned parties, and the breadth of planning in support of negotiations, directly affect the prospects for success or failure. Here is where doubts arise about the Administration’s readiness to deliver on the promise of the diplomatic tracks it has so vigorously embraced.