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"Kerry Has Shown a Genuine Capacity for Mediocrity and an Almost Tragicomic Haplessness"

But, writes ex-diplomat, "blaming him would be like shouting at the waiter because your steak is undercooked."

| Mon Nov. 4, 2013 3:29 PM EST

…Entering Syrian Airspace

The final leg of this flight is Syria, which might be thought of as Kerry's single, inadvertent diplomatic accomplishment (even if he never actually traveled there.)

Not long before the US government half-shuttered itself for lack of funds, John Kerry was point man for the administration's all-out efforts to attack Syria. It was, he insisted, "not the time to be silent spectators to slaughter." That statement came as he was announcing the recruitment of France to join an impending US assault on military facilities in and around the Syrian capital, Damascus. Kerry also vociferously beat the drums for war at a hearing held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

His war diplomacy, however, quickly hit some major turbulence, as the British parliament, not eager to repeat its Iraq and Afghan misadventures, voted the once inconceivable—a straightforward, resounding no to joining yet another misguided American battle plan. France was soon backing out as well, even as Kerry clumsily tried to soften resistance to the administration's urge to launch strikes against Bashar al-Assad's regime with the bizarre claim that such an attack would be "unbelievably small." (Kerry's boss, President Obama, forcefully contradicted him the next day, insisting, "The United States military doesn't do pinpricks.")

Kerry had his moment of triumph, however, on a quick stop in London, where he famously and offhandedly said at a news conference that war could be avoided if the Syrians turned in their chemical weapons. Kerry's own State Department issued an instant rejoinder, claiming the statement had been "rhetorical." In practically the same heartbeat, the Russians stepped into the diplomatic breach. Unable to walk his statement back, Kerry was humiliatingly forced to explain that his once-rhetorical remark was not rhetorical after all. Vladimir Putin then arose as an unlikely peacemaker and yes, Kerry took another trip, this time to "negotiate" the details with the Russians, which seems largely to have consisted of jotting down Russian terms of surrender to cable back to Washington.

His "triumph" in hand, Kerry still wasn't done. On September 19th, on a rare stopover in Washington, he claimed a U.N. report on Syria's chemical weapons stated that the Assad regime was behind the chemical attack that had set the whole process in motion. (The report actually said that there was not enough evidence to assign guilt to any party.) Then, on October 7th, he effusively praised the Syrian president (from Bali) for his cooperation, only on October 14th to demand (from London) that a "transition government, a new governing entity" be put in place in Syria "in order to permit the possibility of peace."

But, But…

As for Kerry's nine-month performance review, here goes: he often seems unsure and distracted, projecting a sense that he might prefer to be anywhere else than wherever he is. In addition, he's displayed a policy-crippling lack of information, remarkably little poise, and strikingly bad word choice, while regularly voicing surprising new positions on old issues. The logical conclusion might be to call for his instant resignation before more damage is done. (God help us, some Democratic voters may actually find themselves secretly wondering whether the country dodged a bullet in 2004 when George W. Bush won his dismal second term in office.)

In his nine months as secretary of state, Kerry, the man, has shown a genuine capacity for mediocrity and an almost tragicomic haplessness. But blaming him would be like shouting at the waiter because your steak is undercooked.

Whatever his failings, John Kerry is only a symptom of Washington's lack of a coherent foreign policy or sense of mission. Since the end of the Cold War, the US has been adrift, as big and dangerous as an iceberg but something closer to the Titanic. President Bush, the father, and President Clinton, the husband, had at least some sense of when not to overdo it. They kept their foreign interventions to relatively neat packages, perhaps recognizing that they had ever less idea what the script was anymore.

Waking up on that clear morning of September 12, 2001, the administration of Bush, the son, substituted a crude lashing out and an urge for total domination of the Greater Middle East, and ultimately the planet, for foreign policy. Without hesitation, it claimed the world as its battlefield and then deployed the Army, the Marines, the Navy, the Air Force, growing Special Operations forces, paramilitarized intelligence outfits, and drone technology to make it so. They proved to be good killers, but someone seemed to forget that war is politics by other means. Without a thought-out political strategy behind it, war is simply violent chaos unleashed.

Diplomacy had little role in such a black-and-white world. No time was to be wasted talking to other countries: you were either with us or against us. Even our few remaining friends and allies had a hard time keeping up, as Washington promoted torture, sent the CIA out to kidnap people off the streets of global cities, and set up its own gulag with Guantanamo as its crown jewel. And of course, none of it worked.

Then, the hope and change Americans thought they'd voted into power in 2008 only made the situation worse. The Obama administration substituted directionless-ness for idiotic decisiveness, and visionless-ness for the global planning of mad visionaries, albeit with much the same result: spasmodic violence. The United States, after all, remains the biggest kid on the block, and still gets a modicum of respect from the tiny tots and the teens who remember better days, as well as a shrinking crew of aid-bought pals.

The days of the United States being able to treat the world as its chessboard are over. It's now closer to a Rubik's Cube that Washington can't figure out how to manipulate. Across the globe, people noted how the World's Mightiest Army was fought to a draw (or worse) in Iraq and Afghanistan by insurgents with only small arms, roadside bombs, and suicide bombers.

Increasingly, the world is acknowledging America's Kerry-style clunkiness and just bypassing the US Britain said no to war in Syria. Russia took over big-box diplomacy. China assumed the pivot role in Asia in every way except militarily. (They're working on it.) The Brazilian president simply snubbed Obama, canceling a state visit over Snowden's NSA revelations. Tiny Ecuador continues to raise a middle finger to Washington over the Assange case. These days, one can almost imagine John Kerry as the wallflower of some near-future international conference, hoping someone—anyone—will invite him to dance.

The American Century might be said to have lasted from August 1945 until September 2001, a relatively short span of 56 years. (R.I.P.) John Kerry's frantic bumbling did not create the present situation; it merely added mirth to the funeral preparations.

Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. A TomDispatch regular, he writes about current events at his blog, We Meant Well. Van Buren's next book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, will be available in April 2014.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse's The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

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