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Kerry and Hagel: An Interm Report

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John Kerry and Chuck Hagel have been at the helm of American foreign and security policy for some months now. Much was expected from new faces, new approaches and -- perhaps -- some new thinking. How are they doing? Any proposed answer, however tentative, depends on the standards used to measure success or failure in the conduct of the United States' external relations. If you judge the direction of the Obama administration's foreign policy over the past four-plus years as basically sound, then there are solid grounds for rating the new team highly. If you wanted shifts in its orientation and methods, then you justifiably will register disappointment. For there as yet is no sign that anything has changed. That holds for form as well as substance.

Many expected that Kerry would bring to the State Department a smoother, more subtle diplomacy. By experience and reputation, he was advertised as someone who understands that mode of address counts in foreign dealings; so, too, is how one expresses American intentions and desires. After years of Leon Panetta's abrasiveness, and Hillary Clinton's condescension, greater tact and finesse promised dividends on the international stage. That positive development has not been forthcoming. Kerry ricochets around the world like an unguided missile as if bent on topping Hillary's record accumulation of frequent flyer miles. More troubling, purpose and adequate preparation are lacking. So he flies into Baghdad with the well-publicized intent to cajole Mr. Maliki into breaking off his material and political support to Bashar Assad's Syrian regime. The Iraqi Prime Minister tells Uncle Sam to go to hell. Secretary Kerry next shows up in Ankara with the equally well-publicized intent to cajole Tayip Erdogan into breaking his plans to visit Gaza. The Turkish Prime Minister tells Uncle Sam to go to hell. Kerry follows up with a well-publicized call for the Palestinian quasi-government of Mr.Mahmoud Abbas to meet with the Israelis to discuss 'peace' despite President Obama's having cut the ground from under him during his recent visit to Israel by accepting unceasing West Bank settlement expansion. Assad fires his U.S.-friendly Prime Minister, Fayyad, instead. All of this is inept, embarrassing and exacts a price in American prestige and influence in the main arena of the country's foreign policy.

Mr. Hagel, by contrast, is a more substantial person that Mr. Kerry and with better instincts. Yet he too yields to the prevailing Washington culture to engage in gestures as a substitute for action. Hence, a few weeks back, when the question of possible American military intervention in Syria rose to the surface again -- thanks to reports that Assad has used chemical weapons against the rebels, and thereby crossed a 'red line' pointlessly drawn by Obama -- Hagel jumps into the fray to say that we are not certain what happened and haven't decided what to do if it did happen. In other words, giving in to the compulsion to open one's mouth even if one has nothing to say. That accords with the prevailing Washington belief that "I make sounds, therefore I am" -- so I can't be overlooked. That a person of Hagel's sobriety should partake in this pastime testifies to how inextricable style and substance have become linked even on matters of grave consequence.

What of that substance of the Obama administration's foreign policy? The linear continuity that characterizes it is striking. That is most evident in the Middle East. On Israel, unqualified deference to the Netanyahu government. On Iran, non-negotiable demands with no concessions backed by ever tightening sanctions. On Syria, Assad must go but we won't arm the rebels because some weapons might fall into the hands of the Islamist jihadis who form a major part of the insurrection. We grasp for the will 'o wisp of talks leading to Assad's voluntary departure despite the abundant evidence that the radicalizing and embittering effects of civil war make that an impossibility. Toward this end, Kerry entices Putin into co-sponsorship even though Russia is adamant that it will not be party to any effort to oust Assad; Moscow invited back into the high-stakes Middle East game before agreeing on its rules and aims. On Afghanistan, fight on against a multifarious set of foes even after 2014 (using Special Forces, drones, and the CIA's army of O-4 units) even though Washington is unable to say what the end state should be or to explain realistically how we might get there. On Iraq, talk vaguely about the awkwardness of all fledgling democracies while the country slides towards a renewed civil war and the government embraces the Islamic Republic of Iran. On Yemen, drone attacks against could-be terrorists along with all-out support for the latest autocratic who rules part of the country. On Egypt, stick with the Muslim Brotherhood since Obama impetuously declared President Mursi a partner last year despite the crackdown on opposition to the authoritarian Islamist state taking shape.

None of these sterile policies appears to be under critical review -- much less are there signs of new thinking. There was no reason to expect either from Mr. Kerry, who at no time since 9/11 has expressed any deviation from the main lines of three administrations' foreign policy. More was expected from Mr. Hagel. After all, he is on record as questioning the logic and practicality of our confrontational approach toward Iran. He has pointed out the counter-productive effects of Israel's uncompromising opposition to square dealing with the Palestinians. He was a sharp critic of our occupation of Iraq. He has offered thoughtful alternatives to an American global strategy that is overly simplistic, recklessly audacious and prone to self-defeating interventions. While it is politically unrealistic that Hagel would quickly become an in-house skeptic of his President's foreign policy, something that inescapably entails taking on powerful elements of the country's prevailing establishment and its entrenched orthodoxy, still there was some small hope in certain quarters of doubts quietly being raised on individual aspects of it -- and/or perhaps some reflective public statements that plowed fresh intellectual ground. That may yet come despite the absence of harbingers. Or it may be that the only way Hagel will make a difference will be by digging in his heels when Obama faces the likely decision about whether to attack a recalcitrant Iran down the road.

Overall, the Obama administration's approach to the Middle East has been impervious to changes on the ground -- even the most drastic. No strategic adjustments have been made to the seismic events of the Arab Spring and their unstable aftermath. Turmoil in Egypt and Yemen, civil war in Syria, intensified sectarian conflict in Iraq, irresolution on Iran -- all are unsettling and dangerous in themselves. As cause and effect of a sharpening Sunni-Sunni confrontation across the region, they take on far-reaching implications. Even the political geography of state boundaries drawn after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago is now threatened with a violent recasting. Yet Washington plods ahead, as if on automatic pilot, trying to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. That is: the tacit alliance of Israel and the 3 Arab autocracies (Egypt, Saudi Arabia & Jordan) to resist any challenge to the status quo; bringing down the Islamic Republic of Iran; and -- of course -- attacking any Islamist elements hostile to the United States in the name of the "war on terror." The manifest contradictions among these ends, the sterility of tactics, the narrow and short-term focus -- these flaws in our approach elude the Obama people as they insist that reality must fit their pre-conceived notions. So they are like a squirrel marooned in the center of a busy intersection not knowing which way to jump to avoid danger -- all the while presuming to direct the six-way traffic by furiously waving its tail from side to side.