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John Kerry’s Silly Play

The secretary of state prattles about imaginary treaties while the Arab world is engulfed by a Sunni-Shia civil war

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Mahmoud Zayat/AFP/Getty Images, Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images, and Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images.)
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Secretary of State John Kerry says that’s it’s now or never for Israelis and Palestinians to reach agreement on a two-state solution. Interestingly, neither Israeli nor Palestinian officials have any idea what Kerry is talking about. With the Arab Spring uprisings tilting the Middle East status quo on behalf of Israel’s enemies, Jerusalem is not about to give up the West Bank—nor is the Palestinian Authority in any position to defend it. Little wonder then that an Israeli official recently told Haaretz, that Kerry “looks like a naive and ham-handed diplomat.”

But of course, Kerry’s public statements have little connection to workable diplomacy. Rather, the secretary of state is the leading man in a theatrical production about American Middle East policy whose only audience members, at this point, are Beltway pundits. In the real world, what matters are the chips you lay on the table—and whether you are willing to bet. Having exited Iraq, packed up our gear in Afghanistan, abandoned our “red lines” about Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s use of chemical weapons, America has gone from player to kibitzer.

Consider Kerry’s other regional initiative: yet another peace process that seems entirely detached from realities on the ground. Kerry wants to convene an intra-Syrian peace conference, in tandem with Russia, sometime in June—with the goal of putting representatives of Bashar al-Assad’s regime together at the same table with the opposition forces determined to topple him. Since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, more than 70,000 people have been killed, according to conservative estimates. To spectators in the balcony seats, the nauseating extent of the bloodshed might signal that the Syrians have had enough of death and want to get back to their lives.

But there are other, perhaps more instructive metrics. Last week, a video was released showing a rebel commander named Abu Sakkar eating what he believed to be the heart—it was actually the lung—of a regime loyalist. This gesture, apparently the first recorded act of ritual cannibalism in the Syrian civil war, suggests that the country’s sectarian furies are only now starting to reach a fever pitch—one that may well burn for many years to come. It is only when people tire of slaughtering their neighbors and eating them, and others are in turn tired of being slaughtered by their neighbors and being eaten, that they are ready to sit down and talk about peace.

Kerry’s efforts to broker peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the Assad regime and its opponents, will obviously come to nothing. Being an experienced politician, Kerry may even have some inkling that his plans have no connection to reality. The reality in which he moves is too grim to present as the public face of American diplomacy: President Barack Obama is not obviously prepared to invest his own prestige in an Israel-Palestinian peace process that is doomed to fail. Nor is Obama any more inclined now than he was two years ago, when the Syrian uprising began, to throw his weight behind any policy that will actually bring about Assad’s fall. Under the circumstances, Kerry’s love of theater may actually be the least bad option for a man with the misfortune to have his lifelong ambition for higher office gratified at exactly the wrong time.

* * *

But Kerry’s fate is worth considering more closely for what it tells us about the current state of America’s Middle East policy and, more specifically, what it tells us about the job of secretary of state, which over the last few administrations has become less about implementing policy than about burnishing the intellectual and policy credentials of political celebrities who for whatever reason require a larger stage, but who then find themselves stuck knee-deep in the Big Muddy of America’s failed attempts to change the Middle East.

George W. Bush’s two secretaries of state distinguished themselves only by distancing themselves from the president’s major foreign-policy initiative, the Iraq War. Instead of resigning from Bush’s Cabinet in protest against a war he now says he thinks was a mistake, Colin Powell bit his tongue—until he left the administration and tried to clean the mud off his boots by taking shots at his former colleagues, who couldn’t answer back. Condoleezza Rice convened an Arab-Israeli peace conference at Annapolis in order to distract attention from the fact that she was now the one who was supposed to be in charge of Iraq. Hillary Clinton—who undoubtedly remembered what happened to her peace-maker husband at Camp David—eschewed Israeli-Palestinian peace conferences and other rote American diplomatic stagecraft for the pleasures of being garlanded with flowers at a record number of international airports.

As chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Kerry was known in D.C. as the man who had Assad on his speed-dial. Now he has the unpleasant task of explaining that Assad is actually a butcher but his boss won’t do anything to stop him. So, what should he do with the rest of his term in office that might be more rewarding? At the very least, a secretary of state should be able to give both the president and the American public a clear picture of what is happening in the world and where American interests may lie. At present, Kerry might instruct us that this picture looks something like this:

The Middle East is currently being torn apart by the Sunni-Shia conflict, a bloody religiously inflected war for regional dominance. This war is not an ideological construct of the kind that political scientists like to use in order to group a variety of disparate phenomena under a single subject heading. It’s a deadly shooting war, whose many campaigns include not only Iraq’s ongoing civil war, but the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s, which pitted the Sunni standard-bearer, Saddam Hussein, against the self-styled Persian revolutionaries of Shiite Iran. Today, the main theater of this conflict is Syria, where Assad’s minority regime, drawn from a heterodox Shia sect known as the Alawites, has called in reinforcements from Hezbollah, a Shiite militia in Lebanon, as well as Iran, all together comprising a bloc vying for regional hegemony with the Sunni powers—especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey.

In turn, the Sunni states are backing the Sunni Arab majority in Syria, pouring in money and arms. If some of their assets are unsavory characters affiliated with al-Qaida, the reality is that, absent the United States, the Gulf Arabs have no other security pillar to protect and advance their interests.

The Sunnis are of two minds about the conflict: They both welcome it insofar as they see it as the realization of a historical dream to put down the upstart Shia once and for all. The Sunnis also fear the conflict. They believe that the Syria campaign may be even more dangerous and destabilizing than the Iran-Iraq war, which—terror attacks aside—was largely restricted to a relatively limited field of battle between the borders of those two countries. The current enactment of the Sunni-Shia war, on the other hand, threatens to extend to everywhere in the Middle East where the two sects live in close proximity to each other. Sectarian violence in Iraq has picked up as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki further consolidates his power and the Sunnis are fighting back. Earlier in the week, 70 people were killed in car bombings and shootings in Baghdad in a round of violence that may augur a return to the worst sectarian fighting since the country’s barely averted civil war under the American military occupation. Now that the Americans are gone, communal violence between Sunnis and Shia is likely to escalate.

In Lebanon it seems that neither the Iranians nor the Saudis have an interest at present in opening another front. Tehran believes that Hezbollah firmly controls Lebanon and there is no reason to risk that control while Hezbollah fighters are pouring into Syria to give Assad’s depleted forces a breather. Riyadh also wishes to focus its efforts on Syria. But who knows how long the Lebanese will continue to cross the border to fight each other when they can save on car and bus fare, sleep in their own beds, and fire RPGs at each other at home?

So, what does any of this have to do with America, besides the fact that no one likes seeing footage of dead babies on YouTube? Why not, as some argue, let the Sunni and Shia kill each other until they get tired of killing? For the United States, the gravest danger of the Sunni-Shia war is that it might spread to the Persian Gulf, which remains a fulcrum of the global economy.

The possibility that the fires that are burning in Syria and Iraq might spread to the Gulf gets more real by the day. Bahrain, an oil-rich country ruled by Sunnis, has a restive Shiite majority. Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority inhabits the country’s oil-rich eastern province. The Sunni rulers of the Gulf States appear to relish the opportunity to take on Iran and the Shia, especially in Syria, the historical homeland of the first Arab empire, the Umayyad dynasty. Without Washington on the spot to rein in Arab triumphalism, the Saudis are likely to over-estimate their power, causing damage not only to themselves, but also the global economy and therefore vital American interests.

Obama might not see the Iranian nuclear program as a very big problem—it’s not the Soviet Union after all. His apparent focus on al-Qaida rather than on Iran as America’s major strategic threat may suggest he believes that, in the long-run, the Shia, as a regional minority, are a better match for American values and interests than the Sunni majority, whose millennia-long domination of the Shia has given rise to the sectarian supremacism that in turn gave rise to al-Qaida. There are good reasons, in other words, for America to stay out of the Sunni-Shia civil war. What a good secretary of state should be telling the president right now is that such a course of action, while perhaps preferable, may not be possible.


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ginzy1 says:

“…Saudi Arabia’s Shiite majority…”

I might be wrong but I believe that should be “…Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority…”.

Otherwise the article is a breath of fresh air in the otherwise stultifying Tabletarian atmosphere of political correcticism.


    USNK2 says:

    Hello Ginzy. Yes, it IS “…Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority…” who are indigenous to Saudi Arabia’s “oil-rich eastern province “.
    As to Kerry’s naivete in pushing for I/P peace? I still think it is what King Abdullah of Jordan wants, and I do believe the USA is aware of the importance of stability in Jordan.
    Odd that Jordan is MIA from Smith’s otherwise clearheaded frame of the Sunni-Shi’a conflict. (too bad they are not at the point in time where Iraq could just make money from tourism in re-enacting the Battle of Karbala)

      Felix Tejeda says:

      b℮fℴr℮ I saw th℮ ℂh℮ℂk fℴur $6747, I aℂℂ℮pt that…my… ℂℴusin was trully ℮rning mℴn℮y in th℮ir spar℮ tim℮ at their ℂℴmput℮r.. th℮r℮ n℮ighbℴur has b℮℮n dℴing this 4 l℮ss than tw℮nty thr℮℮ mℴnths and at pr℮s℮nt r℮pay℮d th℮ lℴans ℴn th℮r℮ plaℂ℮ and gℴt a gr℮at Jaguar E-typ℮. gℴ tℴ….. WWW,

    Ginzy, you are correct. The piece has been updated. We regret the error.

ginzy1 says:

I never thought anyone would get me to miss Hillary Clinton as SoS, but Kerry’s self-aggrandizing stuffiness, ignorance, incompetence, and incredible naivete has managed. He has exceeded my worst expectations.

The real problem is his naivete. Unfortunately, as we Israelis have learned the hard way, naivete kills.


Jerusalem / Efrata

    moderate Guy says:

    I hope no one in Israel takes anything coming out of this disgrace of an “administration” seriously.

    jovyxafeseda says:

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    Clark says:

    It truly is a shame how this administration has treated the only civilized nation in the Middle East. It’s not my fault, I did not vote for Obama but I am sorry nonetheless.

      Isabella1709 says:

      Me either and I am sorry too that we have such a bunch of idiots running the government and the country into the ground.

    CiporaJuliannaKohn says:

    The real problem is Obama who thinks that he is always the smartest man in any room. In order to keep up this delusion, he has surrounded himself with very young, unqualified and inexperienced advisors who would not correct him even if they knew better. Ben Rhodes, age thirty three, his speech writer doubles as a national security advisor.

    However, one should not be fooled. Obama mostly follows the policies of the Atlantic Council whose members include Brent Scowcroft, Brzezinski, Susan Rice, James Jones, Wilkerson, Hagel, and other luminaries who think that Israel is the major problem of the world.

if you read this author on a regular basis you can actually predict what he is going to say before he says it

Kery is a true walking disgrace……

They are all jokers, kerry, peres and netanyhau.
non of them really want peace, and the palestinian leadership doesn’t want it either.
only the people want peace, and clearly non of these guys represent the people.
They represent goverment and financial interests with a bleak vision.
and that’s why nothing will happen. This “now or never” declaration has been done before and it is nonsense..we all know it’s a balant lie, just like it was before.

Moby837 says:

It’s not just Kerry. We already know Kerry well. We continue to learn about Obama.
It is striking to see how doing nothing has such dramatic unintended consequences. I really don’t think Obama has learned that yet. Or if he knows, that’s even worse.

    counterpointisrael says:

    Yes, you are absolutely right. But this was the lesson of the Shoah – that great evil happens when good men do nothing. However I seriously doubt that Obama is a “good man”.

MR. Kerry is adrift at the high seas, he does not have a clue.

    moderate Guy says:

    But Teresa Heinz-Kerry can go to all the right parties in DC, as a wife of a Secretary of State. That’s what’s important.

Though Kerry still warms himself in the “after glow” of the American century, in the Middle East the “pax Americana” is coming to an end. There will probably be a whole range of new and/or enhanced realities. And, if Israel has some more time, the USA in retreat along with increasingly insecure European states might eventually discover more fully the advantages of a stronger, more aggressive and more proactive Israel. In the interim, somebody should remind Kerry that it is a well known principle of statecraft that those with “ants in their pants” for a peace agreement end up having to pay extra for a pair of fresh underwear. Are not Palestinians also human beings just like Israelis? What about their own heartfelt genuine desire for a full-and-final peace that recognizes the legitimacy and permanence of Israel as “the” Jewish State? Are the Palestinians in any sense really ready to make a full-and-final peace with Israel as the political expression of the self-determination of the Jewish People in a part of its aboriginal homeland? Certainly not! Charles de Gaulle once significantly said “treaties are like flowers and pretty young women — they last as long as they last.” This was de Gaulle’s shrewd, cynical and experienced appreciation that, for mutual benefit, a treaty is the parties’ attempt to encapsulate a current constellation of politics and military power. If so, Kerry should know that the current constellation of politics and military power does not conduce to a peace treaty, which correspondingly is really not now desired by the parties. Perhaps, Kerry should turn on his TV and take a look at what is happening! The Middle East is in deep disorder! On the one hand, there is too much despair, but simultaneously too much hope that Israel will soon be defeated, perhaps by a combination of Hizbullah and Tehran’s new nuclear weapons. Those seeking a Middle-East game changer are certainly not out looking for “peace” with Israel. With stocks now falling why should investors rush into the market to buy paper that promises to be worthless tomorrow? This metaphor asks why anyone would want to rush to genuinely participate in a Kerry-inspired peace process at a time when USA power and influence is imploding? One thing for the USA to show some commitment to the Middle East by first violently destroying Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities and then coming to Jerusalem with a peace plan. Totally another thing for the USA to first go to Jerusalem with a peace plan, while increasingly signalling that it is disposed to accommodate the genocidal nuclear ambitions of the ayatollahs. But what Lee Smith should have added is that “Neville Chamberlain” Obama now has some of his special plans for the Middle East and for Israel that are in practical terms not too far from the stipulations that were forced on Czechoslovakia in September 1938. His upcoming bilateral meetings with Xi and Putin will probably include expressions of USA willingness to negotiate away Israel’s nuclear weapons and to partition Israel’s territory. West Bank and Gaza to be joined to effect a “contiguous” Palestine which will also receive the Negev. Not for nothing did Obama clear the decks of experienced generals and diplomats to pack the house with Kerry, Hagel, Brennan and Dobbins. All these men, as well as their leader, are certified Munich-style appeasers! The USA’s Middle Eastern hour is finally coming to an end. This is an awe inspiring development that should prompt Israelis to some deep reflection and a heavier sense of responsibility. Israel had best speak carefully (diplomatically), while playing for time, and waiting on events. There is now also a pressing need for Israel to continue landing land some really savage blows on assorted opponents. For want of anything better, being tough genuinely counts for something in the Middle East, where a victory 20 years ago is soon forgotten. “Testing, testing, testing” is not just a feature of electronics. It is an ever present reality of international relations where Barack Obama and John Kerry offer us nothing but disappointment and betrayal.

    it will only come to the end. If Americans lose the will . There is no country in the world that compare to American power economically and militarily. are people are so filled with self dealt and self-hatred . The lopsided history. they have learned at the universities.the most democratic country in world the most nonracist country in the world. open to bringing in people of different cultures it seems the whole Western world is taken in suicide pills of self-destruction this insane multicultural, all cultures are equal, except Western culture. It’s less equal

Qaboos is struggling
since 1995 to bring USA Trade Balance from $257.4M to $1,747M in 2012. Now I see
Kerry in Muscat yesterday pushing the Trade Balance further $2.1B in Raytheon Junk
deal to $3,847M that’s triple what Qaboos can afford. Kerry and Oman oh! no. can’t
be. Cheney and Oman more likely to dump some Toxic Waste in Empty Quarter. That’s
more like it. Here’s loose change.. There’re two apostate Iranian Americans busted
by Khamenei for spying for CIA. Kerry needs Qaboos to contact Iran to release
them before US/Israel Iran in year 3033. Qaboos gets Oman leashed for while and
Kerry gets the hostages before Democrats lose the Senate next year. Raytheon is
Redherring. Where yesterday’s drone who hit al-Qaida in Yemen flew from? Oman. So
long! America. This is your argument – I am going to bed. The rest of the
evening is yours. Theorize it.

Reading this article, and articles like it, one would assume that the USA’s role in the Middle East is merely that of advisor and potential negotiator, trying to resolve this or that conflict. It’s nothing of the sort: it’s an active participant on the side of tyranny.

    tedpeters says:

    Right now… it looks like whatever side we might take would be the side of tyranny. Maybe the wisest thing to do would be not to take any side.

    I think it’s childish to think they can be.a resolve to this conflict.the Palestinians will not quit until their crushed are there is is no Israel and all this befriends and hugged is silly dreamworld , not reality, but we will go on it is always a struggle in life for survival is not good. It’s not bad it’s life’s

moderate Guy says:

“Interestingly, neither Israeli nor Palestinian officials have any idea what Kerry is talking about.” Heck, boy-toy Kerry has no idea what he is talking about.

Daniel Schwartz says:

But John Kerry LOOKS like a wise, statesmanlike Secretary of State. Isn’t that enough?

How appropriate for a deranged megalomaniac psychopath to appoint another deranged megalomaniac psychopath as secretary of state; how vile the GOP spread their legs to be a harlot for the affair. Both parties would be impeached and imprisoned, if not executed (as accomplices in the murder of the American ambassador) for such treason in a civilized country run by responsible or even rational adults; no danger of that here where rational thought processes in Washington are highly conspicuous by their absence; it’s why ordinary responsible Americans who are capable of rational thought are overwhelmingly independent, tea party & anti-establishment-corruption GOP, unlike big cities & the beltway where corrupt & treasonous Dem and RINO fascists rule.

this whole Obama administration act like children they live in imaginary world with make-believe solutions. They’re not just dangerous for America. Dangers for the world. I can’t believe anybody could be worse than Jimmy Carter was I wrong . I guess it shows how strong the United States is to survive this administration. When will adults be in charge again

tedpeters says:

The Middle East has made tremendous progress of late. Instead of being a millenium behind the West, the Muslim states now seem to be reliving the great Christian Wars in 16th and 17th century Europe. Meanwhile, as feckless as he has always been, Mr. Kerry may actually understand that this horrid reality dictates that the West stay out of this region as much as possible, until the bloodshed forces its populace to come to their collective senses. So his pronouncements in this regard are wisely intended only for the US audience.

John Mood says:

There are approximately 5,000 armed contractors in Iraq to protect the 15,000 Americans working in and around the US Embassy there. There may also be a small contingent of Marines at the Embassy, but they are not charged with protecting consulate offices, only Embassies. That’s why there were no Marines in Benghazi, it was only a consulate.

As of last count there are various estimates of between 15,000 to 32,000 American troops in Afghanistan,

Mr. Kerry seems to not have a clue as to what he is doing, nor does he even know our troop levels in various countries. Ever heard of Google, Mr. Kerry?

What do you expect from a man who tried to evade property taxes on his yacht. He cares more about his own business than his one Nation’s business. He cares little for the US and I do not think he cares the mess he is making in Israel.

L’Chaim, Yisrael!

Rick S says:

Kerry has as much influence on foreign policy as I do. Zero. Obama only trusts his loyal pals such as Susan Rice.

Richard Armbach says:

Of course it all depends on what chips you put on the table. If the Palestinians were to put out their ace chip then what fun we would all have.

The Clenis says:

But, of course, Osama Bin Laden, was Sunni, not Shia (as one might expect) and Al Qaeda was created, in part, by the United States’s attempt to choose sides in the Iran-Iraq war….’memba?

Kerry is a clueless tool who can’t even follow the script they give him.

Shades of “peace for our time” by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain… such blind arrogant stupidity is a real danger to others.

Don’t blame Kerry, he is not cut to be the US top diplomat. Blur Kerry is simply not too sure how to best tackle the Middle-East. Perhaps he needs better advise. (ttm1943)

Clark says:

Silly, of course what else would you expect from Kerry, or any other liberal progressive. ginzy1 below says it very well..

Nico Bester says:

This kind of politician sits firmly on the fence. There is no moral authority to be found in equivocation. Israel is the only country in that region which has democracy, the rule of law and freedom of speech. To equivocate is to deny. See

Isabella1709 says:

Well, Kerry and Obama need some place in the Middle East to go where they won’t get shot, and try to pressure someone into agreements. Kind of like busy work.

mouskatel says:

Yes, the good old “Now or never” line. Can’t they come up with a new cliche?

ParisParamus says:

Kerry is an idiot. If only we had a non-sychophantic media to make that clear.

herbcaen says:

The cluelessness of our State Department reflects poorly on the US. Under Bush, we might have been hated by the rest of the world, but now, we are the object of ridicule

CrossHugger says:

My apologies to Israel….we have allowed the stupid and immature and lazy take over our government….their arrogance and elitism stinks…..

Natan79 says:

“Last week, a video was released showing a rebel commander named Abu Sakkar eating what he believed to be the heart—it was actually the lung—of a regime loyalist. This gesture, apparently the first recorded act of ritual cannibalism in the Syrian civil war, suggests that the country’s sectarian furies are only now starting to reach a fever pitch—one that may well burn for many years to come.”

Where are the European protests for that?

arby8888 says:

Actually, Kerry’s performances are reminiscent of Shelley Bermann’s monologues. When Kerry speaks I can’t help but laugh myself silly. What a farce this Obama gov’t is. Good luck, America. Stand tall, Israel. Ignore the fluff sent your way by the hypocritical clowns of Obamaville.


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John Kerry’s Silly Play

The secretary of state prattles about imaginary treaties while the Arab world is engulfed by a Sunni-Shia civil war