Friday, March 14, 2014

Abroad, alone - John Kerry feels little love from Barack Obama

US Secretary of State John Kerry has often seemed out on a limb, alone, when conducting American foreign policy. President Barack Obama has been supportive in general ways, but, overall, remains detached from foreign policy concerns.

On Syria, the Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations, and much else, Obama has stayed aloof. That’s not to say the president doesn’t meet foreign dignitaries or pick up the phone now and then. A crisis such as that in Ukraine certainly holds his attention. But on other matters rarely is there much direct engagement by Obama in America’s foreign policy agenda.

As anyone who has followed American foreign policy knows, personal involvement by the president is often regarded by foreign actors as proof of American seriousness. Without it, they often see no point in making significant diplomatic concessions, which can undermine the objectives of American diplomacy.

But the Obama White House is on a very different wavelength. Its message often seems to be: Why should the president expend valuable political capital on risky diplomatic ventures he does not consider a priority? Obama may not put it so bluntly, but the administration has made it clear time and again that his primary concerns are domestic, and that America’s attention overseas, when it is there, is directed far less at the Middle East or Europe, let alone Africa or Latin America, than at Asia.

And even in Asia, the president has really not done very much. The United States has kept a low profile on the major issue of the day: the maritime disputes between China and its Asian neighbors. And last October, Obama’s sense of priorities was starkly revealed when he cut short an Asian trip to return to Washington and deal with the government shutdown.

Kerry would doubtless never admit to frustration. However, there are telltale signs suggesting there is a quiet struggle going on between the State Department and the White House over the Middle East in particular. The secretary, it often seems, seeks to push the president ever so gently in a given direction, only to feel pushback from the White House.

Take Kerry’s statement in mid-February that Obama had asked for new options to address the conflict in Syria. White House spokesman Jay Carney very quickly responded that Kerry’s remarks should not be taken “as some new announcement or new consideration.” He added, “The president is always asking his team to evaluate where we are and where we could be… It’s not like this is a new review.”

The exchange came soon after Kerry was quoted as having told a group of American Congressmen that the administration’s Syria policy was failing. In reaction to this, Kerry was said to advocate a change in US strategy, including arming the Syrian rebels. That’s why his remarks about new options may have been viewed by the White House as a way of railroading the president into taking more forceful action in Syria – hence its decision to play down his comments, even if it meant embarrassing Kerry.

But then Obama has been good at putting his secretary of state in awkward positions. Last year, while Kerry was publicly defending the decision to launch an attack against Syria, in retaliation for the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, Obama changed his mind, leaving the secretary in the lurch.

Obama has seemed, similarly, disinterested in Kerry’s efforts to negotiate a peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. Again, that’s not to deny that Obama has gone through the motions. He met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu two weeks ago and urged him to take the “tough decisions” required to salvage the peace process.

However, Obama has not staked his reputation on success. His credibility is in no way tied to the outcome of negotiations. If they accomplish something, he gains. If they fail, it will be Kerry who faces the backlash. The president has not invested much time, effort or political leverage in the venture. Indeed, Obama has expended little time and effort on the Middle East in general, hardly traveling to the region in the past five years.

For his misfortune, Kerry not only is serving a president who seems detached from foreign affairs, he was also not Obama’s first choice for the post of secretary of state. Obama initially wanted Susan Rice, a close aide, but her appointment was derailed by the controversy over her remarks relating to the attack against the US consulate in Benghazi.

If Kerry were to complain one day about the White House’s suffocating grip on foreign policy, he would not be the first. Vali Nasr, who served as an advisor to Richard Holbrooke, the late special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, last year wrote a harsh critique of the Obama administration, arguing that Obama’s political advisors had excessive influence over foreign policy decisions, despite their lack of experience.

Robert Gates, the former defense secretary, was equally disparaging of Obama’s approach to American involvement in Afghanistan, which seemed characterized by the same lack of conviction visible elsewhere. In his memoirs he wrote, “I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for their mission.” Given that the president had sent thousands of US soldiers on that mission, the phrase was quite devastating.

There was a time when Obama was portrayed as a president with a cosmopolitan touch, which would shape his foreign policy in positive ways. After all, he had spent a few years in Indonesia and had a Kenyan father. The idiocy of that judgment is more evident by the day. But the one paying the highest price is the man Obama appointed to represent the United States in the world. John Kerry must feel very lonely.

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