Posted by on November 07, 2013 in Blog

By Marc Sabbagh
Fall Intern, 2013

Secretary of State John Kerry performed some confusing “course corrections” on a trip abroad to the Middle East and Europe this week, especially when viewed in light of the Obama administration’s desire, since 2009, to achieve innovative diplomatic breakthroughs in the broader region. Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo, the administration’s position toward long-standing allies during the Arab uprisings, and recent outreach to Iran’s new president are just a few examples.

Still, any surprise momentum the administration gains on these regional priorities has been coupled with the oftentimes contradictory task given to Obama’s top diplomats: Kerry and his predecessor Hillary Clinton have consistently had to reassure allies and maintain a diplomatic status quo, effectively backtracking on any headway.

This is as true now with Secretary Kerry as it was before with Secretary Clinton – recall Clinton’s forced “U-turn” on the settlement issue with Israel early on in Obama’s tenure.

Kerry’s statements during his visits to Egypt and Saudi Arabia are problematic for several reasons. Not only do they muddle U.S. foreign policy in the region, but they appear to neglect the monumental shifts taking place in the broader Middle East – the Arab uprisings, U.S. overtures to Iran, and Secretary Kerry’s persistence on the Arab-Israeli peace process – in an attempt to salvage an increasingly problematic status quo: a strong relationship with Egypt’s military, an unwavering alliance with Saudi Arabia, detachment from the Syrian crisis, and isolating Iran.

Tacking on Egypt to Secretary Kerry’s itinerary last-minute was only the first sign of a regional policy in disarray. During the visit to Cairo, Kerry noted that the Egyptian military’s “road map is being carried out to the best of our perception,” an awkward statement given the United States’ suspension of delivering weapons systems to the Egyptian government and the ongoing trial of Egypt’s ousted president Mohamed Morsi (which Secretary Kerry did not comment on). Instead, Kerry noted that suspending the weapons delivery and withholding $260 million in aid were “not a punishment.”

Additionally, Kerry met with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah to reassure the Kingdom that the Obama administration would cooperate on issues like Syria, Iran and Egypt. Kerry called Saudi Arabia “the senior player” in the region and an “indispensable” partner.  Prince Saud, foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, later responded by saying, “Some of the differences [with U.S. policy] are in objectives, very few…most of the differences are in tactics.”

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries are apprehensive that the United States is not leading on Syria and that Obama is diving in too quickly with Iran on the nuclear issue. Saudi sentiments are justifiable, given another Kerry course correction on Syria. “Absent a negotiated solution,” he said, “we don’t see a lot of ways to end the violence [in Syria], certainly, that are implementable or palatable to us, because we don’t have the legal authority, or the justification, or the desire at this point to get in the middle of a civil war.”

The remarks were strange coming from Kerry, who spoke so forcefully and convincingly a few months ago on the need to hold Assad accountable for violence against his people. If a military option or sending weapons to Syrian rebels were a policy component before, Kerry’s words now don’t show it.

Without even commenting on the effectiveness and success of the administration’s policy decisions to suspend aid in Egypt, work with Russia to remove chemical weapons from Syria, and reach out to Iran, the inability of the Obama administration to effectively define policy and take a firm stand on these decisions is troubling.

Some policy analysts and practitioners, like Aaron David Miller, have commented on Obama’s tendency to “dominate, not delegate” on foreign policy, which makes it difficult for his Secretary of State to “own” the foreign policy agenda and lead on the international front. This may explain the lack of clarity and continued contradiction in policy toward the broader Middle East – one step forward by Obama and two steps back by Kerry is not a viable regional strategy.

Recent revelations about the Obama administration’s Middle East strategy in the New York Times, President Obama’s UN speech in late September, and U.S. raids in Libya and Somalia show the president hopes to return to protecting “core interests” in the region. These priorities encompass what candidate Barack Obama outlined in a 2007 Foreign Affairs article. He said the United States should move “beyond Iraq” to focus on three regional issues: the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Iran's nuclear program, and counterterrorism. 

Obama's 2007 limited strategy is reemerging. One problem: it's 2013, and the region is undeniably in a different place. Returning to “core interests” cannot come at the expense of linking the transformative events in the Arab world’s transitioning countries and considering the region’s shifting alliances. If left as afterthoughts of U.S. policy, these monumental challenges will drastically reshape the international landscape in less than amenable ways for the United States.

While Kerry was only doing his job this week, he should not be relegated to “Secretary of Status Quo.”

Key breakthroughs in U.S. foreign policy – whether opening up diplomatic relations with China or convening the Madrid Peace Conference – occurred when presidents placed their full confidence in their secretaries of state. Kerry has already demonstrated his ability to keep the Israeli-Palestinian peace process going and gave a tough defense of crafting a U.S. strategy toward Syria a few months ago.

A stronger relationship and better strategic maneuvering between President Obama and Secretary Kerry that allows both leaders to utilize the strengths of their positions to craft an effective regional strategy would be a welcome start.

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