Imagine a world in which the Middle East is not descending into carnage and chaos but is on the brink of a monumental series of breakthroughs. In this world in spring 2014, Iran’s nuclear program has been secured and Egypt has become a liberal democracy. Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has stepped aside. And, not least, Israelis and Palestinians have settled on the terms for a Palestinian state.
This is the world that John Kerry inhabited last week: a fantastical realm created by his billowing vision of what he can accomplish as Secretary of State. Meanwhile, on this planet, aid agencies reported starvation and an outbreak of polio in Syria; Egypt’s last elected president was put on trial; Israeli and Palestinian leaders described U.S.-brokered peace talks as broken; and France’s foreign minister suggested the would-be accord with Iran was “a fool’s game.”
Call it Kerry’s Magical Mystery Tour. On Nov. 3 in Cairo, he announced that “the road map [to democracy in Egypt] is being carried out to the best of our perception,” after failing even to mention the politicized prosecution of deposed president Mohammed Morsi.
On Tuesday, Kerry offered the following explanation of why the Syrian peace conference he’s pushing will succeed: “The Assad regime knows full well that the purpose of” the conference is “the installation of a provisional government.” And “the Syrian government has accepted to come to Geneva.” It apparently follows that Assad will show up and placidly agree to hand over power. If not, Kerry ventured, “the Russians and the Iranians ... will make certain that the Syrian regime will live up to its obligation.”
Kerry’s optimism was far from exhausted. His next stop was to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, both of whom had broken a vow of silence to say the negotiations Kerry persuaded them to begin in July had gone nowhere. Not to worry, said Kerry: “I am convinced from my conversations” with them “that this is not mission impossible; this can happen.”
All this was before his weekend trip to Geneva for what became a failed attempt to close a deal with Iran on its nuclear program. Kerry’s conclusion: “I can tell you, without any reservations, we made significant progress.”
Stipulated: The mission of the U.S. secretary of state is to tackle big problems diplomatically, even if it means taking on missions impossible. Still, it’s hard to think of a previous chief of Foggy Bottom who has so conspicuously detached himself from on-the-ground realities. To those outside the Kerry bubble, Egypt is ruled by a regime more repressive than any in decades, with a muzzled media and thousands of political prisoners. Syria is mired in an anarchic struggle whose most likely winners appear to be Assad and al-Qaida, with neither inclined to negotiation. Israelis and Palestinians are further apart on the terms for a settlement than they were at the turn of the century. And the emerging conditions for a deal with Iran threaten to drive a wedge between the United States and some of its closest allies.
Does Kerry believe his rhetoric? In fact, it appears he does, particularly on the Israeli-Palestinian account. Desperate for a legacy at the end of his long career, the former senator has convinced himself that a) the terms for a settlement are readily apparent and b) he has the political skills to convince Netanyahu and Abbas to accept them. Kerry, like President Obama, also is convinced that detente, if not a “grand bargain,” has all along been possible between the U.S. and Iran, if only the right people (like him) are at the table.
Other Kerry stances are the logical result of Obama’s decision to radically retrench U.S. policy in the Middle East. Obama decided at summer’s end to restrict U.S. activity to “core interests” that don’t include the defense of democracy, preventing humanitarian catastrophe or ending “someone else’s civil war.” That means that Kerry, who once pushed to arm the Syrian opposition as a way of “changing Assad’s calculations,” is left with little recourse other than to plead with Russia and Iran to accomplish what the U.S. will not. Faced with Obama’s dictum that U.S. cooperation with Egypt’s military will continue, Kerry must pretend that the generals are installing a democracy and pray that they take the cue.
If any one of Kerry’s dreams comes true, the world would be better off, so I hope skeptics like me will be proved wrong. If not, this secretary of state will be remembered as a self-deceiving bumbler — and his successor will have some large messes to clean up.
Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor of The Washington Post.