This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
In the 1960s, John Kerry was distinctly a man of his times. Kennedy-esque, he went from Yale to Vietnam to fight in a lost war. When popular sentiments on that war shifted, he became one of the more poignant voices raised in protest by antiwar veterans. Now, skip past his time as a congressman, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, senator, and presidential candidate (Swift Boated out of the race by the Republican right). Four decades after his Vietnam experience, he has achieved what will undoubtedly be the highest post of his lifetime: secretary of state. And he's looked like a bumbler first class. Has he also been—once again—a true man of his time, of a moment in which American foreign policy, as well as its claim to global moral and diplomatic leadership, is in remarkable disarray?
In his nine months in office, Kerry's State Department has one striking accomplishment to its name. It has achieved a new level of media savvy in promoting itself and plugging its highest official as a rock star, a world leader in his own right (complete with photo-ops and sophisticated image-making). In the meantime, the secretary of state has been stumbling and bloviating from one crisis to the next, one debacle to another, surrounded by the well-crafted imagery of diplomatic effectiveness. He and his errant statements have become global punch lines, but is he truly to blame for his performance?
If statistics were diplomacy, Kerry would already be a raging success. At the State Department, his global travels are now proudly tracked by the mile, by minutes flown, and by countries visited. State even has a near-real-time ticker page set up at its website with his ever-changing data. In only nine months in office, Kerry has racked up 222,512 miles and a staggering 482.39 hours in the air (or nearly three weeks total). The numbers will be going up as Kerry is currently taking a 10-day trip to deal with another NSA crisis, in Poland this time, as well as the usual hijinks in the Middle East. His predecessor, Hillary Clinton, set a number of diplomatic travel records. In fact, she spent literally a full year, one quarter of her four years in office, hopscotching the globe. By comparison, Cold War Secretary of State George Schultz managed less than a year of travel time in his six years in office.
Kerry's quick start in racking up travel miles is the most impressive aspect of his tenure so far, given that it's been accompanied by record foreign policy stumbles and bumbles. With the thought that frenetic activity is being passed off as diplomacy and accomplishment, let's do a little continent hopping ourselves, surveying the diplomatic and foreign policy terrain the secretary's visited. So, fasten your seatbelt, we're on our way!
We'll Be Landing in Just a Few Minutes…in Asia
Despite Asia's economic importance, its myriad potential flashpoints, and the crucial question of how the Sino-American relationship will evolve, Kerry has managed to visit the region just once on a largely ceremonial basis.
Diplomatically speaking, the Obama administration's much ballyhooed "pivot to Asia" seems to have run out of gas almost before it began and with little to show except some odd photos of the secretary of state looking like Fred Munster in Balinese dress at the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference. With President Obama then trapped in Washington by the shutdown/debt-ceiling crisis, Kerry seemed like a bystander at APEC, with China the dominant presence. He was even forced to suffer through a Happy Birthday sing-along for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the meantime, the economy of Washington's major ally, Japan, remains sleepy, even as opposition to the US-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade pact grows and North Korea continues to expand its nuclear program seemingly unaffected by threats from Washington.
All in all, it's not exactly an impressive picture, but rest assured that it'll look as fetching as a bright spring day, once we hit our next stop. In fact, ladies and gentlemen, the pilot now asks that you all return to your seats, because we will soon be landing…
…in the Middle East
If any area of the world lacks a single bright spot for the US, it's the Middle East. The problems, of course, extend back many years and many administrations. Kerry is a relative newcomer. Still, he's made seven of his 15 overseas trips there, with zero signs of progress on the American agenda in the region, and much that has only worsened.
The sole pluses came from diplomatic activity initiated by powers not exactly considered Washington's closest buddies: Russian President Putin's moves in relation to Syria (on which more later) and new Iranian President Rouhani's "charm offensive" in New York, which seems to have altered for the better the relationship between the two countries. In fact, both Putin's and Rouhani's moves are classic, well-played diplomacy, and only serve to highlight the amateurish quality of Kerry's performance. On the other hand, the Obama administration's major Middle East commitment—to peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians—seems destined for a graveyard already piled high with past versions of the same.
Meanwhile, whatever spark remained of the Arab Spring in Egypt was snuffed out by a military coup, while the US lamely took forever just to begin to cut off some symbolic military aid to the new government. American credibility in the region suffered further damage after State, in a seeming panic, closed embassies across the Middle East in response to a reputed major terror threat that failed to materialize anywhere but inside Washington's Beltway.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia was once nicknamed "Bandar Bush" for his strong support of the US during the 1991 Desert Storm campaign and the Bush dynasty. He recently told European diplomats, however, that the Kingdom will launch a "major shift" in relations with the United States to protest Washington's perceived inaction over the Syria war and its overtures to Iran. The Saudis were once considered, next to Israel, America's strongest ally in the region. Kerry's response? Fly to Paris for some "urgent talks."
Meanwhile, the secretary of state has made no effort to draw down his fortress embassy in Baghdad, despite its "world's largest" personnel count in a country where an American invasion and nine-year occupation resulted in a pro-Iranian government. Memories in the region aren't as short as at the State Department, however, and Iraqis are unlikely to forget that sanctions, the US invasion, and its aftermath resulted in the deaths of an estimated 4% of their country's population. Kerry would be quick to condemn such a figure as genocidal had the Iranians or North Koreans been involved, but he remains silent now.
State doesn't include Turkey in Kerry's impressive Middle Eastern trip count, though he's traveled there three times, with (again) little to show for his efforts. That NATO ally, which refused to help the Bush administration with its invasion of Iraq, continues to fight a border war with Iraqi Kurds. (Both sides do utilize mainly American-made weapons.) The Turks are active in Syria as well, supporting the rebels, fearing the Islamic extremists, lobbing mortar shells across the border, and suffering under the weight of that devastated country's refugees. Meanwhile—a small regional disaster from a US perspective—Turkish-Israeli relations, once close, continue to slide. Recently, the Turks even outed a Mossad spy ring to the Iranians, and no one, Israelis, Turks, or otherwise, seems to be listening to Washington.
Now, please return your tray tables to their upright and locked position, as we make our final approach to…
Following more than 12 years of war with thousands of lives lost, Kerry was recently reduced to begging Afghanistan's corrupt president, Hamid Karzai, to allow a mini-occupation's worth of American troops to remain in-country past a scheduled 2014 tail-tucked departure by US combat troops. (Kerry's trip to Afghanistan had to be of the unannounced variety, given the security situation there.) Pakistan, sporting only a single Kerry visit, flaunts its ties to the Taliban while collecting US aid. As they say, if you don't know who the patsy is at a poker game, it's you.
Relations with the next generation of developing nations, especially Brazil and India, are either stagnant or increasingly hostile, thanks in part to revelations of massive NSA spying. Brazil is even hosting an international summit to brainstorm ways to combat that agency's Internet surveillance. Even stalwart Mexico is now lashing out at Washington over NSA surveillance.
After a flurry of empty threats, a spiteful passport revocation by Kerry's State Department, a bungled extradition attempt in Hong Kong, and a diplomatic fiasco in which Washington forced the Bolivian president's airplane to land in Austria for a search, Public Enemy Number One Edward Snowden is settling into life in Moscow. He's even receiving fellow American whistleblowers as guests. Public Enemy Number Two, Julian Assange, continues to run WikiLeaks out of the Ecuadoran embassy in London. One could argue that either of the two men have had more direct influence on America's status abroad than Kerry.
Now, please return to your seats, fasten your seat belts, and consider ordering a stiff drink. We've got some bumpy air up ahead as we're…