Terms of Engagement

Slouching Toward Damascus

In Syria's implosion, Secretary of State John Kerry already faces a defining task. How hard is he prepared to push against Obama's weary realism? 

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Last week, I suggested that Secretary of State John Kerry might turn out to be a diplomat on the order of James Baker or George Schultz. I meant that as a compliment.

But Baker was also the statesman who airily dismissed any effort to stop the Serbian slaughter in Bosnia by saying, "We don’t have a dog in that fight." Baker understood his job as promoting America’s national interests — tout court. Now, as the Obama administration steers its dainty way around the butchery in Syria, which looks more and more like the Balkan war, we need to ask whether Kerry is that Baker brand of realist — and if so, whether we should be grateful that he is.

Certainly he is regarded that way, both by those who welcome a dose of realism and those who don’t. Sergei Lavrov, Kerry’s Russian counterpart, recently praised him — in Foreign Policy‘s May/June issue — as a "pragmatic" professional, like himself. That’s the kind of celebrity endorsement Kerry could probably do without. From the other side, the Middle East analyst Shadi Hamid has caustically noted that "if an alien came from outer space and was only allowed to read transcripts of Secretary Kerry’s regional press conferences, it would probably have no idea that something called the ‘Arab Spring’ happened."

That’s only slightly hyperbolic. In a press conference with Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal, Kerry actually said: "Across the Arab world, men and women have spoken out demanding their universal rights and greater opportunity…. So I want to recognize the Saudi government for appointing 30 women to the Shura Council and promoting greater economic opportunity for women." (He did add that he hoped to see "further inclusive reforms.")

American statesmen have been lavishing inane praise on the Saudis for decades now, as once they lavished praise on autocratic allies in Brazil and Greece. Nevertheless, it is a fact that Kerry has spent a great deal of time over the last 30 or so years holding quiet chats with Middle Eastern dictators and their courtiers. He is, indeed, a pragmatic professional comfortable with other professionals. He told me proudly how well he knew men like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad — just before the bottom fell out on the bragging value of those relationships.

As I said last week, Kerry has plunged bravely into the most intractable diplomatic problems America faces. That’s why the comparison to James Baker seems as least potentially fair. But the world has changed drastically since the last days of the Cold War. Global populations are no longer mute spectators of a statecraft practiced over their heads. The way America is seen, and not simply by elites, restrains or enables America’s behavior far more than it did a generation ago.

Barack Obama is himself acutely aware of this transformation: In one of his first foreign policy speeches as a candidate, he said that when he flew low over a disaster zone or conflict area, he saw children looking back at him and wondered, "when those faces look up at an American helicopter, do they feel hope, or do they feel hate?" Perhaps the president who finds himself soft-pedaling criticism of Bahrain, an important regional ally which is crushing its own Arab Spring uprising, would say that he has found the world to be more complicated than he thought. But he was right in thinking that we do have a dog in those fights, and not just in a moral sense. That’s why the war in Iraq remains a calamity for America’s national interests long after the last soldier has withdrawn — and why the president is trying yet again to close the prison at Guantanamo.

Nobody had to tell Kerry that the world is complicated and intransigent; he knows that from all those years of closed-door diplomacy. But neither can I imagine Kerry saying, or thinking, "We have no dog in that fight." He is too morally driven to be that kind of realist. This is, after all, the man who first came to prominence denouncing the Vietnam War in a Senate hearing. Kerry did not absorb from the war Colin Powell’s lesson that the United States should use force only massively and with a certain endgame, or Chuck Hagel’s that we should do less rather than more. Kerry was prepared to see America use force to advance moral goals. He supported the NATO bombing of Bosnia in 1995, and favored a no-fly-zone in Libya before Obama came around to it.

And this is why Syria is a crucible for Kerry. Until now, Obama has made the cold-eyed judgment that America’s national interest is best served by keeping a distance from Syria’s civil war; he designated the regime’s use of chemical weapons as a "game changer" not because it would make the violence intolerable but because it would threaten the region, and thus America’s own interests. Is Kerry equally prepared to view Syria as a dreadful tar baby?

On the evidence so far, I think not. In early March — well before the chemical weapons "red line" had been crossed — Kerry said that the "reservations" about "who we are dealing with" in the Syrian opposition had been answered, permitting the United States to funnel non-lethal aid directly to the rebels. At the time, Martin Dempsey, the head of the Joint Chiefs, was making the opposite argument. The secretary of state then helped win an increase in assistance, and hinted that Washington might begin to supply weapons, or help others do so, if President Assad continued his onslaught. Both a State Department official and an outside expert told me that they believe Kerry is now pushing Obama to ramp up supplies to the rebels, though it’s unclear if, as has been reported, that will involve weapons.

Of course, the labels don’t matter if you make the wrong call. There are innumerable voices (see here, here, and here, for example) advising Obama to keep clear of Syria. If Syria is like Iraq — a sectarian civil war just waiting to happen — then Obama’s instincts have been sound. If, on the other hand, Syria is something more like Bosnia, where an outside thumb on the scale might tip the balance far enough to force a cessation of violence, leading in turn to some kind of separation of forces and peoples, no matter how sulle
n and dangerous — then we should wish that Obama had listened to figures like David Petraeus and Hillary Clinton when they argued a year ago for a more decisive American presence. And we should wish that Kerry makes, and wins, the case for actually having a dog in that fight.

That’s what I wish, anyway. Since mid-2012 I have argued for a no-fly zone and military aid for the rebels. The question has become hugely complicated by the Islamization of the opposition and the increasing fragmentation of the country into semi-sovereign armed cantons; the hope that rebels might defeat Assad and rule over a unified, much less secular and democratic, state seems increasingly forlorn. Nevertheless, Assad must go; and there’s no indication that will happen soon unless outsiders put their thumb on the opposition side of the scale.

So I come back to my original question about Kerry: Yes, it is fair to say that he has a legacy worldview in which gentlemen hash out the world’s problems. But no, he is not the kind of realist who believes that America can do the greatest good in the world by adhering to the strictest possible definition of national self-interest — or that "in difficult, uncertain times," as Robert Kaplan writes in his admiring article of Henry Kissinger in the current issue of The Atlantic, "the preservation of the status quo should constitute the highest morality." Kerry is something like the president he serves, uneasily perched between the wish to extricate America from the hash it has made and a romantic sense of what the country has been and can be. That is, at the very least, a good place to start.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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