There are times these days when Secretary of State John Kerry seems like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills in trying to teach Russian President Vladimir Putin diplomatic manners and get right-wing Israeli leaders to accept a peace deal with the badly split Palestinians.
Kerry spent weeks railing against the Russians for their daring move to annex Crimea in the wake of the Ukrainian coup that deposed a Russia-friendly elected president at the height of Putin's triumph with the Sochi Winter Olympics. Kerry, like President Barack Obama -- who got his big break nationally when Kerry picked the then Illinois state senator to deliver what turned out to be a spectacular keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention -- predicted that Russia would become internationally "isolated" as a result of the Crimea move. He went so far as to predict that America's Western European allies would go down the line with the US on tough sanctions to punish Russia for Crimea and potentially roll back the land grab.
"Every single one of them are prepared to go to the hilt in order to isolate Russia with respect to this invasion," Kerry declared. "They're prepared to put sanctions in place, they're prepared to isolate Russia economically."
That never happened.
Instead, the US is negotiating with the very country it vowed to "isolate," Russia, over the future of Ukraine.
As I wrote he would a month ago, Putin held on to Crimea and held fast with respect to the rest of Ukraine, hoping and working for a new Ukrainian government that stays out of NATO, one that he and Russia can work with.
Russia would prefer what it had before mass protests suddenly spun up late last year after democratically elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich turned down an association agreement with the European Union and the painful reforms that would accompany major economic assistance in favor of a Russian bailout. The Russian view is that the pro-EU demonstrations and subsequent coup were spun up by Western intelligence services working with non-governmental organizations. That's also the Russian view of Ukraine's Orange Revolution a decade ago.
But since the status quo of late last year won't be restored, Russia will settle for a Ukrainian regime which is unaligned with the West, and clearly not part of NATO. In pursuit of that, Lavrov has pushed for a looser federation style government in Kiev, but Kerry says no. Somewhere there is a relatively happy medium, one likely arrived at after a passage of time in which Ukrainian hardships from the IMF economic reforms accompanying European Union aid, and Russia raising natural gas prices, chills the revolutionary ardor of the Maidan.
And Kerry, his windmill-tilting blunted by the realities that, no matter the momentary rhetoric, Britain, France, and, most of all, Germany -- the nation which holds the key to stabilizing the European Union and the key to relations between Western Europe and Russia -- will not pursue major sanctions against Russia for economic and political reasons that were obvious all along, is operating very much in real world mode.
While Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov negotiate over the shape of things to come in Ukraine, Kerry is involved in an even more complex set of talks around the historically intractable question of Israel and Palestine.
And there his tilting at windmills continues unabated.
Kerry is pursuing the '70s liberal holy grail of Israel and a Palestinian homeland living side by side in harmony. What he has gotten is nearly a year of talks that have, unsurprisingly, gone nowhere -- leading the US to contemplate the release of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard to keep them going -- and angry denunciations from Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon.
In both cases, Kerry is dealing with national leaderships historically obsessed with their vulnerability to invasion. Russia, as I've repeatedly discussed here, has an historic reliance on defense in depth. But even that did not prevent Hitler's Germany in World War II and Napoleon's France during the Napoleonic Wars from driving to the gates of Moscow.
Israel's situation is actually far worse. A rainspout of a country, Israel is just 71 miles across at its widest (less than the drive from San Francisco to California capital Sacramento), a tiny 9 miles (less than the drive from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica on the Pacific) across at its narrowest. Vastly outnumbered by the mostly unfriendly Islamic nations which surround it everywhere but the sea, Israel has, not surprisingly, relied on aggressively geared up military and intelligence establishments. This is why it also moved quickly to acquire and unofficially brandish a nuclear weapons deterrent in the event that profound geographic and demographic vulnerabilities were about to result in Israel being overrun.
Kerry's tilting charge in the Middle East flies in the face of Israeli and Palestinian leaderships that are more interested in securing their core concerns and values, and catering to their angriest constituents, than in compromise. The fact that he and the Obama Administration might see fit to release Jonathan Pollard -- something which has been absolutely anathema in the past -- just to keep the peace talks going is a mark of desperation.
Perhaps it is time to return home to one's village.