A weary Kerry has reason to feel frustrated

By Dale R. Herspring

I doubt anyone in the U.S. government is more frustrated and exhausted than Secretary of State John Kerry.   

Some diplomatic problems are extremely difficult. That’s especially true when one or both sides of an issue are not interested in solving the problem or if one side has a weak hand. Kerry decided early on to confront international problems regardless of how difficult they might be. It has been a taxing experience. He has run himself ragged. Indeed, Kerry has spent the last three months traveling the world dealing with one crisis after another.

Sadly, the problems appear to be getting worse.

Take the Crimean issue. By now, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov must have begun to feel like family members; the two have been spending more time together than many sets of brothers. 

Lavrov’s English is excellent and includes a good knowledge of slang. My suspicion is that private conversations between the two are in English (though official discussions would involve interpreters).  

Trouble is, Moscow wants the United States to recognize its annexation of the Crimea, so the two diplomats go back and forth. “You must recognize that the Crimean population has voted for union with Russia. All we are doing is bowing to their will,” says Lavrov. Kerry responds, “We cannot accept your violation of the treaty you signed with the United States and Ukraine. Besides, the massing of Russian troops on Ukraine’s eastern border is unacceptable”

Moscow wants Ukraine to be a loose federation with autonomy for parts where Russian is the predominant language. In addition, Moscow wants Ukraine to pledge to be neutral and to agree to never join NATO.  The United States wants the Ukrainians to determine their own future, including their form of government and the international organizations they wish to join.

Kerry and Lavrov seem to like each other, yet they must hold the lines required by their governments. Each has talking points to follow to the letter. I can imagine the creative ways they come up with for saying the same thing over and over without using the same words twice.

The Russians have little incentive to compromise. The United States is a long way from the Crimea, and President Barack Obama is not running a muscular foreign policy. The Russians believe they have time and geography on their side

In the Middle East, the situation is even more frustrating.  Obama has interpreted the Arab-Israeli conflict as similar to the kinds of disagreements that afflict large U.S. cities.  His idea was to find a middle road and get both sides to compromise.  The problem is that international conflicts bear little resemblance to domestic ones.

The Israeli-Pales-tinian problem is more complex than anything Obama encountered on the streets of Chicago. Whose land is the territory claimed by both sides? That depends on the period in question.  There was a time the Israelis did occupy the region. There were also times Arabs inhabited the region.  But both sides believe the land is theirs.  

Add the belief that the land is not only theirs but sacred, and the situation becomes even more difficult to deal with diplomatically. Religion, especially if it is of the fundamentalist variety, makes compromise nearly impossible.

What has made Kerry’s job even more difficult has been Obama’s attempt to convince both sides that he wants to handle the issues in an even-handed fashion. As a result, both sides believe the United States has turned against them. In the past, we had very close relations with Tel Aviv.

Now the Israelis are openly hostile to this administration. They have made clear that they believe Obama’s effort to open a dialogue with the Palestinians is anti-Israeli. What’s more, Obama’s decision to cut the strength of the U.S. military makes the United States a less reliable ally. If something erupts on Israel’s borders, where will the United States be? Given Washington’s other obligations, will it have an adequate force to send to the Middle East?

I admire Secretary Kerry, not only for his heroism in Vietnam but also for his recent efforts. He has taken on some very difficult problems. A more rational foreign policy by his boss would not eliminate the issues noted above, but it would certainly make Kerry’s job easier.

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