MUNICH — Is John F. Kerry an enabler?
The question occurred to me as I listened to the U.S. secretary of state speak of the recent “success” of Syria negotiations with Russia and others, talks that Kerry said have produced an agreement on a “cessation of hostilities.” “This is the moment. This is a hinge point,”Kerry told prime ministers, generals and others gathered at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday. “Decisions made in the coming days and weeks and few months could end the war in Syria — or it could define a very difficult set of choices for the future.”
Kerry has believed peace to be tantalizingly within reach before. As far back as spring 2013, he emerged from a Moscow meeting praising Russian President Vladimir Putin for agreeing to cooperate on a plan under which “the government of Syria and the opposition have to put together, by mutual consent, the parties that will then become the transitional government.” In November, Kerry declared that Syria could be “weeks away” from “a big transition.”
During five years of war, the situation in Syria has devolved from horrifying to catastrophic. The death toll, long pegged at 250,000, has surely soared well past that. More than half the citizens of a nation of 22 million have been forced from their homes, with more than 4 million leaving the nation as refugees. The resulting mass migration has triggered what Kerry called “the gravest humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II,” a “near-existential ... threat to the politics and fabric of life in Europe.”
As Kerry was discussing the latest diplomatic development, Russian planes were bombing civilians in the city of Aleppo and cutting off its supply line, raising the possibility that the city will be encircled and 400,000 more people forced to flee or face possible starvation, a favorite tactic of Syrian ruler and Putin ally Bashar al-Assad.
“We are being completely outfoxed in Syria by Putin,” former U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns, also attending the conference, told me. “We are being humiliated. We’ve lost our strategic foothold, and we’ve abdicated our leadership.”
All of which made me wonder whether Kerry is an enabler — not of Putin or Assad, but of his own boss, President Barack Obama. Kerry came into office in Obama’s second term persuaded that the Syrian war, then not quite two years old, could be ended only through political settlement — but that the opposition would have to be strengthened before the regime would settle.
Obama’s senior aides in his first term too had favored more robust support for Syria’s rebels. But Obama repeatedly concluded that action — more training, no-fly zones, provision of more effective weapons — was riskier than inaction. That left Kerry with no option other than diplomacy — and diplomacy with an extraordinarily weak hand. Time and again he hoped that Iran and Russia, Assad’s patrons, could be persuaded to see the world as the U.S. saw it. Time and again, Russia strung the Americans along while going its own way, forcing Kerry to give ground step by step — dropping, for example, his insistence that Assad leave power as a first step to settlement.
I admire Kerry’s doggedness. But diplomacy that perpetually, and falsely, holds out the prospect of imminent progress can end up providing a cover and an excuse for inaction. The options available to Obama from the start were risky, and maybe none would have helped; maybe he was right not to give the rebels missiles to shoot down the helicopters that were dropping barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods; maybe safe zones would not have spared Europe from its “near-existential” crisis.
But the mirage of negotiated peace has helped spare the administration — and Congress, and the nation — from even having to debate those possibilities seriously as one of the greatest humanitarian and strategic disasters of our time has unspooled.
You can see a comparable case of diplomacy-as-anesthetic on the other side of the world, where the U.S. does nothing as North Korea becomes a full-fledged nuclear state. The logic has gone like this: Only China has leverage over North Korea; surely it is in China’s interest to prevent North Korea from going nuclear; therefore, the U.S. needs only to enlist China to pressure North Korea. But China turns out to fear North Korean instability more than North Korean nukes. The diplomacy has been fruitless.
Speaking here on Sunday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he could not share Kerry’s hopes for a Syria agreement that allows Russia to keep bombing. Putin is practicing “diplomacy in the service of military aggression,” he said. “The only thing that has changed about Mr. Putin’s ambitions is that his appetite is growing with the eating,” McCain said. “Common sense will not end the conflict in Syria. That takes leverage.” Fred Hiatt is The Washington Post’s editorial page editor.