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

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.

While each of these negotiations is underway without undue controversy, questions are already arising in the Syria and Iran tracks as to whether the US may be aiming too low, preemptively limiting its objectives to what it believes could be agreed upon most easily, quickly and with the least resistance from interested parties, including Congress.

The benefits of narrowly crafted agreements resulting in the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons and a monitored pullback of Iran’s nuclear enrichment activities would be deemed by many in the US as preferable to no agreement with a corresponding increased likelihood of resort to military force. For Syria, Russia and Iran, modest concessions would represent a price worth paying if this meant the US would refrain from challenging their larger, more strategic and longer-term objectives in the region.

US negotiators, therefore, could encounter surprisingly little pushback from Syria and Iran, respectively, and have Moscow’s support, if the goals pursued are tightly drawn and do not entail much if any political discomfiture for those parties. The one mystery emerging from this diplomatic blitz is the Administration’s own view of long-term US national interests in the Middle East, and whether the current negotiations are aligned with a coherent strategy to pursue them.

Israeli-Palestinian Talks on Course, but what about the spoiler?

Start with the track that is best-positioned: the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. US negotiator Martin Indyk brings the expertise and the diplomatic and bureaucratic credentials necessary to hold his own in a negotiation where required compromises can be brokered only by maintaining the complete trust of the parties. Ambassador Indyk has assembled a quality team and kept a low media profile—all steps consistent with a productive negotiating approach.

Unfortunately, neither party to the talks—Israeli or Palestinian Authority representatives—has the capacity to address what has in recent years become the greatest (if not the sole) source of insecurity in their midst, namely heavily armed nonstate actors equipped and funded by Iran. The range, accuracy and quantity of rocket and missile threats against population centers in Israel from Hizballah across the Lebanese border and Hamas in Gaza have steadily increased.

Any confusion about Israel’s overriding security preoccupation should have been dispelled by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s October 1 address to the UN General Assembly. While pledging his readiness to make “an historic compromise with our Palestinian neighbors,” Mr. Netanyahu spent the majority of his speech articulating a detailed warning about the dangers posed by Iran’s fundamentalist regime. Notwithstanding Ambassador Indyk’s wide policy mandate, it very likely does not extend to US policy on Iran.

Syria—Understandable Reluctance but Troubling Missteps

The Syria crisis—admittedly a dauntingly violent and complicated conflict where American interests are less than obvious to the public—has revealed the Administration to have a penchant for reacting to rather than shaping events. Much has been said about the sudden lurches in the President’s approach. He postured to use force and then paused, belatedly submitting the issue for congressional authorization, only to pull back in the face of insufficient support.

Secretary Kerry’s seemingly spontaneous response to a London press query about conditions under which the US might refrain from attacking Syria prompted a stunningly quick Russian initiative to negotiate the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons, challenging Washington to take ‘yes’ for an answer—which it did. While officials tout President Obama’s effective threat of force in compelling Syria to forfeit its chemical weapons, the UN Security Council resolution adopted with US support would require a second resolution before punitive action under Chapter VII is authorized—a precedent the George W. Bush administration famously resisted on Iraq. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Secretary Kerry so readily welcomed Russia’s offer of a negotiated dismantlement of Syria’s chemical arsenal precisely because of Mr. Obama’s unreadiness to authorize military action.

Even assuming that the Syria chemical weapons disarmament process fully succeeds, major questions remain. Yes, Mr. Obama will have recouped a measure of presidential credibility by backing up his declared ‘red line’ on Syria’s use of chemical weapons, albeit months after their use had been confirmed by intelligence. But what of the President’s other Syria ‘marker’—his August 18, 2011 declaration that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside”? That declaration, although repeated as recently as October 14 by Secretary Kerry, shows no sign of being pursued, much less fulfilled, notwithstanding administration pronouncements that the eleven-country “Geneva process” will effect a governmental transition in Damascus.

The Atlantic Council’s Fred Hof has posed a question that many Syrians are surely asking as well: has the US made Bashar al-Assad “an irreplaceable party to a long-term contract” to fulfill its chemical weapons agreement? President Obama appears as indifferent about whether his demand to rid Syria of its homicidal dictatorship will ever be carried out as he is ardent about having his red line restored on chemical weapons.