Iraq, Syria, Ukraine and Gaza are falling apart and John Kerry’s not helping

By Peter Van Buren
August 11, 2014

U.S. Secretary of State Kerry is pictured aboard a replica of Captain Cook's ship 'Endeavour' during his visit to the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney

In what is almost certainly his last job in public service, Secretary of State John Kerry is bumbling his way around the world, ricocheting from crisis to crisis. The idea of the last chapter of his biography portraying him as a punch line can’t sit well. But is it Kerry’s fault, or is he simply being swept up in an American foreign policy in historic disarray?

America lashed out after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and a decade later has substituted strategic incoherence for idiotic decisiveness. A common meme is that Kerry is at worst a bad actor stuck in an even worse movie, contributing little to lift it up but at the same time not baring any real responsibility for the flick’s failure.

There’s truth in that, but it misses Kerry’s genuine capacity for haplessness. Over decades, this kind of serial failure just did not happen to previous secretaries of state. Not Schultz, not Baker, not Powell, not Albright, not Clinton.

To understand John Kerry’s near-unique failures as secretary of state, it is important to look at how a secretary’s trips abroad are conducted, and how secretaries in the past have used the State Department to accomplish their goals. I know, because during my own 24-year career at the State Department, I was on the receiving end of many of these visits.

A secretary of state visit is planned in excruciating detail, both by Washington staff (known to insiders as “The Line”) and by the embassy on the ground. Short notice just means more people stay up later to prepare. Senior people at State doing this work have likely been in government since the Reagan administration, as Foreign Service Officers are not political appointees, and serve both Democratic and Republican administrations over their careers. “Use the building,” the rank-and-file always say to incoming secretaries, “take advantage of the expertise of the six floors below your office.” Nobody can know everything.

“Talking points” are a key planning item used to pull in all that expertise. The points ensure a tired and busy secretary does not need to know everything, and neither leaves out something important nor strays from policy. When a superpower’s interests — never mind world markets and the possibility of war — are on the line, precision of speech is critical.

An example of Kerry’s unintended consequences? An offhand remark by the secretary, less than a year ago, saying that Syria could avoid U.S. airstrikes if they turned in their chemical weapons propelled Vladimir Putin into the role of unlikely peacemaker. He failed to do what most need to be done in a crucial situation — just read the cards.

Another Kerry failing is not using his many deputies to set the stage for his visits. In the spring, Kerry flew out on what was intended to be his signature diplomatic achievement, a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel’s announcement a few months later canceling a release of prisoners ended that; didn’t anyone arrange ahead of time for Israel’s acquiescence? The use of deputies not only lays the groundwork for a triumphant secretarial visit, it prevents such equal-scaled secretarial failures. If things go smoothly with the deputies, great. If talks break down, well, the secretary wasn’t directly involved. It is much harder to succeed in the other direction — juniors rarely can get the toothpaste back into the tube. At best the embassy is left scrambling to ensure high-level stumbles don’t derail workaday issues.

A secretarial visit has traditionally not been to initiate small steps, but to cap off big efforts; he or she otherwise appears weak, or inconsequential.

But this secretary parachutes himself into each crisis in a game of global whack-a-mole. Iraq tumbles into civil war, and Kerry contributes a short visit, emerging only with empty assurances of unity. Following accusations of election fraud, John Kerry zooms out to Afghanistan to broker a hasty agreement, which now seems headed into crisis. Why is Kerry nowhere to be seen afterward until a new crisis-within-a-crisis, a murdered general, pops up? Because he has been to 36 countries in less than the last eight months, more than one stop a week. Some days seems like Kerry is the only senior official left at State with a government credit card allowing for international trips.

Kerry seems to confuse effort for outcome; the State Department obsessively tracks his travel time as if it was billable hours. His frantic diplomacy (the last two weeks for example, India for 72 hours; Africa Civil Society Forum in Washington, August 4-6; an unannounced trip to Afghanistan; a six-day trip to Myanmar, Australia, the Solomon Islands and Hawaii) leaves him little time to follow-up on past efforts. As the United States finds itself playing catch-up to Putin in the Ukraine and the Islamic State in Iraq, Kerry is literally adrift mid-Pacific.

“At least you know you’ve made that effort to try to spare lives and to find a legitimate way forward,” the secretary said following his most recent failures over Gaza. “That’s our job, to try to do that.”

“Trying” seems a limited goal for the top diplomat of the world’s most powerful nation.

PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is pictured aboard a replica of Captain Cook’s ship ‘Endeavour’ during his visit to the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney, August 11, 2014. Kerry is visiting Australia for the annual Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) to advance longstanding security cooperation and discuss regional and global issues. REUTERS/Jason Reed 

17 comments

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Kerry seemed decisive and capable at first. Israel made him look like a delivery boy for a grocery clerk, and the Kurds did just about the same. Secretary Kerry is often sent on some hopeless mission, and that is a mistake. That is not his mistake, but he takes the fall.

Let’s hope he is not sent on any more quixotic journeys that have zero chance of success. He is better than that. If he is made to look like a fool by the Obama team, the he should consider resignation.

Posted by Cleveland2012 | Report as abusive

Over exposed Kerry must seem like nothing more than a lobbyist with a wallet to foreign leaders at this point.

Posted by SaveRMiddle | Report as abusive

With all due respect to Mr. Van Buren’s 24 career in the state department, I think his blog makes a point but is unduly harsh. Have we forgotten Kissinger’s famous “shuttle diplomacy” in the Middle East? The use of a Secretary of State is not dictated by a pre-set schedule for the year, but by those opportunities when his presence can make a difference. If Secretary Kerry seems to be in many places in the Middle East of late, well, there are many good reasons for his presence. If he instead stayed in Washington, would be not criticized for not being hands-on enough in the face of these multiple crises?

One should not confuse having a coherent strategic forcing policy with having an imperial one where the US spends its money and military blood (and the blood of foreign innocents) in every North African and Middle Eastern country in an effort to dictate or control an outcome. Iraq is only the most recent disastrous policy failure of that approach.The Obama administration’s policy seems to be to try to stabilize a region that is undergoing a profound transition driven by its youthful demography, social media, and ghastly extremism. Let’s wait and see if positives emerge from Mr. Kerry’s diplomacy.

Posted by FJMerlino | Report as abusive

Kerry is just a tool of the White House. He reports to them daily and receives instructions.
I believe his overexposure now is a springboard for future political ambitions, as with Hillary.

Posted by Doc62 | Report as abusive

The author communicates the dismal ex-employee complainer syndrome that is often seen in the public and private sector, post employment. Is this what passes as qualified opinion at Reuters? So he worked at the State Dept. John Kerry has been our top official and the author would know nothing of his progress, or result on the world stage since world dynamics are beyond his scope of understanding. Kerry’s qualifications are impeccable, and he is seasoned in diplomacy as our representative. The “opinion” of the author, is just another ax being grinded.

Posted by ekr | Report as abusive

Another Beltway insider thrown into the firing line to increase their elective portfolio with no expertise and the backing of firepower instead of judicious thinking. As we all politically correctly waddle to the “Big Box” emporium to spend plastic money.

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

“America lashed out after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and a decade later has substituted strategic incoherence for idiotic decisiveness.” I’m not sure if you’re right about Secretary Kerry, but this one line could constitute the entirety of a history book chapter on 21st century US foreign policy.

Posted by Sanity-Monger | Report as abusive

Kerry is an incompetent boob in the service of a feckless president who thinks he is smarter than everybody else in the room.

Posted by DLNY | Report as abusive

Any country is run like a corporation where there are different people with different responsibility.Some time CFO differ from CEO in his/her judgement.In that case his integrity demand he/she should resign.This is happening in many corporations.Like that if Kerry’s judgement differ from policies of Obama,he is should have resigned.By sticking to job he(And Clinton) both stake their bright long career……and by resigning they come out as heroes.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

And he could have been President of the United States. Still could be, I guess.

Posted by Randy549 | Report as abusive

This blog substantiates what most already know or suspect – Kerry is a hapless incompetent playing the foreign relations ‘pin cushion’ for obama, deflecting critcism from the ‘great one’.
He has quickly become a laughingstock around the world – allies and enemies alike – by frantically jumping from country to country and never solving anything.
In real estate language ‘kerry talks a good game, but is not a Closer’.. If this guy was on paid on ‘commission’ he be starving on the street.

We think that US leadership can’t get any worse than 16 years of Bush and obama – but think of the disaster we narrowly avoided of ‘Gore and Kerry’ in the WH……….

Posted by willich6 | Report as abusive

Kerry’s strategy of effort meshes perfectly with Obama’s strategy of hope.

Posted by AdamMickiewicz | Report as abusive

very well put
Kerry’s strategy of effort meshes perfectly with Obama’s strategy of hope.

More effort from Obama who should be less retiring and work harder but the strategy is a good one. The situation would be a lot worse without Kerry.

do you think Hillary would have done better????

Posted by ThomasOne | Report as abusive

I think Kerry has been actually fairly effective so far with adversaries such as the Russians over Ukraine. The problem is actually with allies such as Israelis and other Middle Eastern “friends”

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive

With all respect for Kerry.I must say that through our Kerry acted indecisively
and without clarity.He was too polite or he has subconscious sympathy for Israel.He was not moved by the killing of innocent people.According to Obama,s policy he should have been stern.One must remember Obama warned Israel PM when he came here that he should not expect help from US if he does not compromise.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

I agree John Kerry is a bum. We should follow Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham. After all McCain is a Viet Nam war veteran and Graham is a “Gulf War veteran”. If any nuance is necessary we can turn to Dick Cheney.

One thing though: THERR WERE NO al QAEDA IN IRAQ OR SYRIA BEFORE THE BUSH II-CHENEY ADMINISTRATION STARTED THEIR WAR AGAINST IRAQ.

Posted by Dryly | Report as abusive

With all due respect to Secretary of State John Kerry, I have great respect for the man. He is part of the team implementing the President’s foreign diplomacy policy.
And I think we all know the results of the President’s foreign diplomacy policy, not?
He is just one of the wheels of this machine.

I believe that the efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry are in detail directed by the President and with this President that means failure. Don’t shoot the messenger.

Posted by wimvincken | Report as abusive