THE BLOG

Is John Kerry Too 'European' for American Diplomacy?

When he was running as the Democratic presidential challenger against the incumbent Republican president George W. Bush in 2004, aides to then Massachusetts Senator John Kerry were concerned that their candidate who attended a Swiss boarding school as a child, learned to speak fluent French, and who spent summers at his family's estate in the coastal region of Brittany would be seen by American voters as the so-called European Candidate, or, (God forbid!) as a bit too French.

The election was taking place at a time when the supposedly wimpy Europeans were mocked as being from Venus (as opposed to the manly Americans from Mars) and when patriotic Americans were boycotting French Fries and dismissing the French as "Cheese-eating Surrender Monkeys."

So it was not surprising that the Republicans tried to highlight the European disposition and Gallic roots of the man whose mother was born in Paris when his grandfather was working there in the 1920s. Donald Evans, one of Bush's aides, suggested that Kerry was "of a different political stripe and looks French."

No one would argue that Kerry's alleged French connection was responsible for his defeat in the 2004 presidential race, in the same way that the "accusations" that Barack Obama was a "Muslim" and/or a "Kenyan" probably had very little effect on the results of the 2008 presidential election.

But the notion that there is something European if not Old Worldish in Kerry's demeanor may seem less far-fetched today when he is serving as America's chief diplomat under the first African-American president who was born in Hawaii and who spent some of his childhood in Indonesia.

President Obama, who described himself as the "first American Pacific president" and has set as his strategic goal to re-orient American foreign policy from Europe and its Middle Eastern peripheries to East Asia may discover that his top foreign policy advisor who feels more at home on the shores of the Atlantic is not up to the task of shifting Washington's focus to the Pacific Rim.

Kerry's nomination as Secretary of State came after that position was occupied for 16 years by either an African-American or a woman (or both), then returned to Foggy Bottom a figure who looks and sounds like one of the members of the old Foreign Policy Establishment that for better or for worse was in charge of handling American foreign policy for much of the twentieth century.

In a way, Kerry's affinity with this now moribund elite goes beyond style. Trying to resolve conflicts in the Middle East, launching another set of Arab-Israeli subtitle diplomacy, investing time and energy on dealing with Iran, or schmoozing with the Russians, seem like parts of an outline for a plot of a movie from the 1970s or the 1980s starring European-born Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski.

More specifically, just as President Obama has been trying to extract the United States from the costly and un-winnable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to prevent it from being drawn into new military quagmires in that region, Secretary Kerry has been leading the efforts to raise American profile in the Middle East and to invest resources in high-stake diplomacy there.

This continuing hyperactive American diplomacy in the Middle East that Kerry is pursuing, including by launching a new Set of Israeli Palestinian negotiations and managing the rapprochement with Iran, reflects the same commitment that Washington had made at the start of the Cold War and against the backdrop of the collapse of the British and French empires to defend the political and economic interests of the Western alliance in the region which traditionally was considered to be the strategic backyard of Europe. Containing regional and global threats to stability there, protecting the access to the oil resources, and working to advance Arab-Israeli peace were the kind of national security services that Washington that benefited European interests during the Cold War and its aftermath.

And Kerry seems too intent on continuing to provide these services to the Europeans who, unlike the Americans, are dependent on the oil supplies from the region and are affected directly by instability in that region, including through the flow of Muslim immigrants from there, while their cities could be threatened by Iranian nuclear missiles more than, say, New York or Chicago. And let's not forget the sense of nostalgia they may feel towards their former imperial outposts in the Levant and North Africa.

Medium and message seemed to become one and the same when Kerry was speaking at length in well-accented French at a joint press conference with French counterpart Laurent Fabius in Paris when presenting case for military action against the Syrian regime the French public.

"This is our Munich moment, this is our chance to join together and pursue accountability over appeasement," Kerry said, employing a historical analogy that has been so central to the evolution of the trans-Atlantic and even adding a Middle Eastern flavor to it, as he urged U.S. military intervention in the formerly French-ruled province, a move which had the potential to turn into another Iraq and consume the rest of President Obama's term in office if the current White House occupant had not decided to stay out of the civil war there and sending Kerry to make a deal with the Russians in Geneva.

But Kerry may be creating now the conditions for costly new diplomatic entanglements in the Middle East by raising expectations for success on the Israeli-Palestinian and the Iranian fronts, making it more likely that if the Obama Administration fails to deliver a final-status Israel/Palestine agreement and to defuse the Iran nuclear crisis, American position in the Middle East would be even more damaged than it is today.

There are very few serious observers on either side who believe that the current Palestinian-Israeli talks taking place now under American guidance would lead to a deal to resolve such core issues like Jerusalem, the Palestinian refugees or the Jewish settlements.

If anything, both the Israelis and the Palestinians are hoping to be able to score points in the blame game that could follow a breakdown in the talks. Yet much of the blame for the collapse in the negotiations would end-up falling on the Americans. If the Obama Administration faults the Palestinians for the stalemate, it would ignite new waves of anti-Americanism in the Arab World, while a diplomatic clash between the White House and the Israeli government would prove to be politically costly for President Obama.

At the same time, any serious move towards détente with Tehran, like relaxing some of the economic sanctions on Iran, would produce outcries of betrayal by the Israelis and the Saudis, and are bound to galvanize the Evangelical Christians and the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party who together with the traditional supporters of Israel in the Democratic Party are expected to mount a political Jihad against Obama.

Moreover, if the negotiations with Iran would be deadlocked as a result of a refusal by Tehran to accede to American demands despite the progress that made thanks to what would be seen as Iranian moderation, Washington may face the prospects of the crumbling of its international coalition while the White House could come under even more pressure in Congress to punish Tehran.

Either way, the Obama Administration is making huge bet that its diplomacy on Israel/Palestine and Iran would work, without considering the disastrous outcome in case it loses the gamble on making a progress on these two issues.

In any case, the continuing pre-occupation with the crises occurring on the peripheries Europe in the Middle East would make it even less likely that the Obama Administration would be able to carry out its ambitious strategy of bolstering its security ties in East Asia. That in turn plays directly into the hands of the Chinese who probably breath a sigh of relief every time the Americans are being drawn into a new mess in the Middle East. A more Pacific Secretary of State may not have allowed that to happen.