Opinion

David Rohde

John Kerry will not be denied

David Rohde
Nov 21, 2013 02:01 UTC

The secretary of state’s critics call him arrogant, undisciplined, and reckless — but his relentlessness in pursuit of negotiations might produce some of the most important diplomatic breakthroughs in years.

When John Kerry succeeded Hillary Clinton as secretary of state in February, Clinton’s emotional departure from the State Department received blanket media coverage. Kerry’s arrival received next to none.

“So here’s the big question before the country and the world and the State Department after the last eight years,” Kerry said in a speech to State Department employees on his first day on the job. “Can a man actually run the State Department? I don’t know.”

As the crowd roared with laughter, Kerry pushed the joke too far.

“As the saying goes,” he said, “I have big heels to fill.”

Nearly three weeks later, Kerry’s first foreign-policy speech as secretary, an hour-long defense of diplomacy and foreign aid, was a flop. The Washington Post gave it 500 words. The New York Times ignored it. (He was also accused of accidentally inventing a new country called “Kyrzakhstan,” an apparent conflation of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.)

The nearly universal expectation was that Kerry’s tenure would be overshadowed by his predecessor’s, for a long list of reasons. For starters, he was arriving in Foggy Bottom when the country seemed to be withdrawing from the world. Exhausted by two long wars, Americans were wary of ambitious new foreign engagements—certainly of military ones, but of entangling diplomatic ones, too. Barack Obama’s administration, accelerating a process that had begun in the early 1960s under President Kennedy, was centralizing foreign-policy decision making in the White House’s National Security Council, marginalizing the State Department. Kerry hadn’t even been Obama’s first choice for the position, getting nominated only when the candidacy of United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice was derailed by her tenuous association with the Benghazi-consulate tragedy in 2012. (Rice ended up running the National Security Council.) The appetite for risk taking in the White House is never high, but after the Benghazi imbroglio, it was particularly low. Finally, Kerry, a defeated presidential candidate, was devoid of the sexiness that automatically attaches to a figure, like Hillary Clinton, who remains a legitimate presidential prospect. The consensus in Washington was that Kerry was a boring if not irrelevant man stepping into what was becoming a boring, irrelevant job.

An epidemic of journalist kidnapping

David Rohde
Nov 15, 2013 23:19 UTC

Thirty journalists — half of them foreign reporters, half of them Syrian — have been kidnapped or gone missing in Syria, the Associated Press reported this week. The number is unprecedented. Syria today is the scene of the single largest wave of kidnappings in modern journalism, more than in Iraq during the 2000s or Lebanon during the 1980s.  A combination of criminality, jihadism and chaos is bringing on-the-ground coverage of the war to a halt.

In one of several alarming new trends that has emerged in Syria, jihadists are abducting reporters, holding them captive and making no demands for their release. Instead of requesting prisoner exchanges or ransoms, they hold journalists indefinitely as human bargaining chips for future use.

Matthew Schrier, a 35-year-old freelance American photographer abducted in Syria last December, said that his captors made no demands before he escaped after seven months in captivity. Instead, they asked for his online passwords and used his credit cards to buy Mercedes-Benz parts, Ray-Ban sunglasses, tablets and laptops.

How covert drone strikes turn murderers into martyrs

David Rohde
Nov 6, 2013 16:02 UTC

Five days after an American drone strike killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Pakistani politicians are accusing the United States of “murder.” And a militant leader responsible for attacks that killed hundreds, if not thousands, of Pakistani civilians is being viewed as a victim.

On one level, the response was nothing new in the warped, post-2001 relationship between Pakistan and the United States. For 12 years, interactions between these purported “allies” have been marked by distrust, recriminations and lies.

American officials should admit that covert U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan are now counterproductive. The strikes cause Pakistanis to vilify the United States, glorify militants and coddle duplicitous elements of the Pakistani military.

A year after Sandy, New York’s inequality grows

David Rohde
Oct 30, 2013 17:02 UTC

When Hurricane Sandy engulfed New York a year ago, David Del Valle helped me instead of his mother. Del Valle’s choice was not voluntary.

For the last 10 years, the 48-year-old New Yorker has worked as a doorman at the hotel where my wife, daughter and I stayed after being ordered to evacuate our apartment in lower Manhattan. Eager to hold on to his job, Del Valle stayed at work but worried about his mother — who lives on the city’s Lower East Side, which lost electricity and flooded.

His mother was fine and soon after the storm, I wrote about how Sandy exposed the city’s vast economic inequality. While the better off moved to hotels or simply fled, Del Valle was one of the city’s army of doormen, cooks, maintenance workers and maids who stayed on the job during the storm and had to leave their loved ones to fend for themselves.

How fear of al Qaeda hurts U.S. more than al Qaeda

David Rohde
Oct 25, 2013 23:46 UTC

Three disclosures this week show that the United States is losing its way in the struggle against terrorism. Sweeping government efforts to stop attacks are backfiring abroad and infringing on basic rights at home.

CIA drone strikes are killing scores of civilians in Pakistan and Yemen.  The National Security Agency is eavesdropping on tens of millions of phone calls worldwide — including those of 35 foreign leaders — in the name of U.S. security.

And the Department of Homeland Security is using algorithms to “prescreen” travelers before they board domestic flights, reviewing government and private databases that include Americans’ tax identification numbers, car registrations and property records.

The sanity caucus

David Rohde
Oct 17, 2013 21:39 UTC

Our government has failed us — again. Given the debacle over the last 16 days, it’s hard to praise anyone in Washington. Or anything.

The shutdown cost the United States $24 billion, according to Standard and Poor’s. Consumer confidence dropped by the largest amount since the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers. Our partisanship is undermining our international standing and slowing our economy.

Worst of all, it starts again in January. Unbowed by poll numbers that show their unpopularity, hard-line Tea Party conservatives are vowing to fight on.

A new Paul Ryan?

David Rohde
Oct 11, 2013 21:22 UTC

This week, Representative Paul D. Ryan (R-Wi.) may have made himself a leading Republican presidential contender in 2016. By proposing an end to the budget impasse that did not include one word — Obamacare — Ryan may have outmaneuvered Senators Rand Paul (R- Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R- Texas).

Multiple proposals are under consideration in Washington. If Ryan’s plan becomes the basis for a bipartisan budget agreement, it will boost his standing and be a body blow to the Tea Party.

Ryan is clearly trying to position himself as a fiscal conservative who is serious about addressing the country’s deficit problem — without destroying the U.S. economy in the process. He is trying to win the support of the moderate Republicans and mainstream business leaders increasingly exasperated by the Tea Party’s flirtation with default.

The news media shutdown

David Rohde
Oct 3, 2013 20:30 UTC

At 7:00 p.m. Wednesday night, Fox News reporter Jim Angle, citing conservative experts, reported that Obamacare would force young people to pay vastly higher premiums, face large deductibles and leave 30 million Americans uninsured.

On MSNBC, Chris Matthews called Republican opponents of the program “political lightweights” and “puppatoons.” Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said House Republicans were “sickening.”

A night of debate on the first federal government shutdown in 17 years and the country’s largest new government program in a generation had begun. On balance, Fox was worse than MSNBC. But both broadcasts were emblems of America’s failing news industry.

The key stumbling blocks U.S. and Iran face

David Rohde
Sep 28, 2013 01:32 UTC

A historic phone call Friday between the presidents of the United States and Iran could mark the end of 34 years of enmity.

Or it could be another missed opportunity.

In the weeks ahead, clear signs will emerge whether a diplomatic breakthrough is possible. Here are several key areas that could determine success or failure:

Enrichment in Iran?

Throughout his New York “charm offensive,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made one demand clear: Tehran will rebuff any agreement that does not allow it to enrich some uranium.

Iran’s offer is genuine — and fleeting

David Rohde
Sep 19, 2013 23:40 UTC

President Barack Obama’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday is not expected to generate much excitement. Battered by his uneven handling of Syria, no bold foreign policy initiatives are likely.

Instead, the undisputed diplomatic rock star of the gathering will be Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani. In his first six weeks in office, the cleric has carried out one of the most aggressive charm offensives in the 34-year history of the Islamic Republic. And the Obama administration responded Thursday, saying the president would be open to having a meeting in New York.

If Obama and Rouhani, who will both address the assembly on Tuesday, simply shake hands in public, it will be the seminal event of the gathering’s first day.

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