- By Neil JoeckNeil Joeck is a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for International Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
The carnival game whack-a-mole has been used to describe anti-terrorism efforts — no sooner would we respond to one incident in one country than another would pop up elsewhere. By now the metaphor has a different and more troubling application. The field of play is U.S. foreign policy and the mole is Secretary of State John Kerry. It seems that no foreign-policy issue can do without the secretary popping up to lend a hand or the prestige of the office. If his presence were to act as closer on critically important deals needing one final push to achieve success, perhaps this one-man-band approach to foreign policy would make sense. So far, that does not seem to be the case.
We now see that Kerry has been dispatched to Vienna to join other foreign ministers for discussions with Iran. This follows an appearance in Kabul to weigh in on the disputed election for president, which followed hard upon his effort to woo the Chinese with his guitar-playing skills. The day after his departure from the meeting with China, with no visible results, we see fresh news of China hacking into the Office of Personnel Management, targeting sensitive security records of applicants for top-secret clearances. Little can be said about his efforts in Kabul, which did not resolve the disputed election now threatening to spin the country out of control. This will have profoundly negative effects on the role of U.S. and ISAF forces in the country, of course. And we can only wonder why Kerry’s presence is needed in the desultory Iran nuclear talks, most recently poisoned by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s remarks that Iran will never accept limits in producing highly enriched uranium.
Kerry’s most recent pace is so frenetic that some have already lost track of his recent swing through the Middle East, the graveyard of his Israel-Palestine peace plan. The day after he personally announced in Cairo that the United States was resuming military aid to Egypt — despite the military usurpation of power and fraudulent election — he appeared in Baghdad to pressure Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step aside. Before he could do that, however, he was obligated to condemn the actions of the Egyptian leadership, to whom he had just granted military aid, for jailing three journalists on dubious charges.
Several problems are made evident by this peripatetic activity. First, have they made any difference? In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has lamented the jailing of the journalists but they remain incarcerated and facing trial. In Baghdad, Maliki stubbornly remains in office as he blames the Kurds for the collapse of his country. In Kabul, the election results remain in question with neither side ready to back down. Current Afghan presidential contender Abdullah Abdullah did that once in 2009, when he agreed to accept the results of President Hamid Karzai’s tainted election, but in 2014 he may choke before swallowing the same bitter pill. In China, the beat goes on — President Xi Jinping targets a select few on anti-corruption charges, tries to seduce our ally South Korea by attacking our other ally, Japan, and presses ahead unilaterally in the South China Sea. So on the most basic of criteria — does it make a difference — the secretary’s repeated appearances have come up short.
A second concern is whether the secretary’s wanderings by now convey a sense that the United States has an unhealthy interest in picking fruit that is not ripe. We can debate whether there should be any deal in Iran, but if negotiations produce results, all the better. In any negotiation, however, both sides reserve the right — and the obligation to their own security — to walk away if their goals prove elusive. Sending the secretary of state to the table at the eleventh hour suggests a deal is in the works. We will soon find out whether Kerry’s arrival was the key to success or simply a poor use of his time. If no deal is struck or if he cuts a deal that harms U.S. national security, more than prestige will have been lost.
In addition to wasting time, however, there is the issue of America’s prestige. Foreign policy is like chess. It requires patience, advance planning, and recognition that each piece is unique, based on its inherent capabilities, its position on the board, and how skillfully the opponent plays it. President Obama, likening foreign policy to baseball, diminished America’s stature by saying he settled for singles. Kerry’s busy travel plans threaten to do the same. The secretary didn’t need to show his face in Cairo to perform the arguably necessary but unpleasant task of resuming aid. The U.S. Department of State boasts an able diplomatic corps at Foggy Bottom and in our embassies abroad. He should use them. He shouldn’t put American prestige on the line in Baghdad and Kabul until he knows that his presence will make the critical difference in the middle of a crisis. At a minimum, he should not leave town with nothing to show for his visit. The currency of power requires results to keep its value; Kerry threatens to devalue the currency by making too many appearances with too few results.
Finally, the ever-present image of Secretary Kerry appearing first here, then there, then somewhere else contributes to an impression that Obama has checked out. In what was intended to be jocular, the president commented last year that Kerry checked in with him now and then, sending an unfortunate message that foreign policy was in the hands of the secretary, not the president. Foreign policy has historically been the area where even a weakened president — picture Richard Nixon after Watergate or Bill Clinton after his impeachment trial — can still take a strong hand. Yet Obama appears to be on the sidelines, holding back, clouding any sign of a grand plan, either for him or for the country. It’s not too late for the president to seize the reins and define his presidency before events around the world do it for him. Right now, reality is playing whack-a-mole with his secretary of state and therefore with U.S. foreign policy, the prestige of the U.S. Department of State, and the office of the president of the United States.