Published on July 29, 2014U.S. MIDDLE EAST POLICYMalice or Incompetence?
John Kerry’s ceasefire proposal for Gaza has probably destroyed what remained of the United States’ influence in the Middle East, at least for the duration of this administration’s tenure.
After a hectic day yesterday spent in large part seeing off my son, daughter-in-law, and two-year-old grandson on a two-year sojourn in Berlin, I hastened this morning to my keyboard to comment on perhaps the most noteworthy piece of U.S. diplomatic idiocy in the Middle East that I’ve witnessed in several years (which is really saying something). It had been on my mind since expressing the essence of the matter to Richard Aldous on TAI’s weekly podcast in the morning, and repeating it privately over the telephone to a fellow editor (of a weekly) who is not an area expert and so has been calling me episodically but regularly over the past decade to get my take on various matters. So, thus rehearsed, I was ready to let fly at 7:30 AM when, to my shock, I found that I had been beaten into print by, of all people, David Ignatius.
Why do I put it that way? Because in recent years I have rarely agreed with Ignatius’s take on just about anything. But in today’s “The big mistake Kerry made” I find little to criticize. He’s got the essence:
Kerry’s error has been to put so much emphasis on achieving a quick halt to the bloodshed that he has solidified the role of Hamas, the intractable, unpopular Islamist group that leads Gaza, along with the two hard-line Islamist nations that are its key supporters, Qatar and Turkey. In the process, he has undercut not simply the Israelis but also the Egyptians and the Fatah movement that runs the Palestinian Authority, all of which want to see an end to Hamas rule in Gaza… Any deal that reinforces Hamas’s stranglehold—rather than building a path toward change of government, elections and eventual disarmament—is misconceived.
Given Ignatius’s exquisite cultivation of sources inside Democratic administrations, he is no doubt relying on documentary evidence and assistance in knowing some details of recent goings-on not readily available to me. Who—in the White House would be my guess—provided Ignatius his catalysts I’d rather not speculate about; suffice it to say that competitive intra-administration leaking, that venerable Washington political sport, is alive and well—which is why I often tell out-of-town audiences that Washington is one of the few cities in the world where sound travels faster than light.
Now, there are a lot of people who wrongly believe that the Obama Administration, not to exclude the President himself, is resolutely anti-Israel and pro-Muslim Brotherhood. The Middle East and South Asia are not the only places where one can find brain-addled conspiracy theorists, after all. But Ignatius doesn’t think Kerry’s mistake is born of malice aforethought toward Israel, so that leaves us with what can only be called incompetence (though Ignatius does not use the term… must protect that access). I agree that it’s not malice, but it is incompetence of a kind and on a scale that tars John Kerry as the dumbest Secretary of State in my lifetime.
Let me elaborate just a bit, and try to provide some perspective here. As Ignatius notes, Kerry went first to Cairo in his quest for a quick ceasefire, but found that the Egyptians could not budge Hamas. Why this surprised him I can’t imagine: Doesn’t he know that this is not Mubarak’s Egypt anymore, where a long-standing double-gaming gambit once provided some indirect U.S. entry into Hamasistan? This is post-Morsi, al-Sisi Egypt, and the Egyptian double game is over. That’s good in that it makes Egypt and Israel effective allies at weakening Hamas, but the drawback is that Cairo can no longer serve as an effective transmission belt for the insertion of U.S. sticks and carrots. So chalk up that flight as a waste of aviation fuel.
Then it got worse. By ministering to Qatar, where the head of the Hamas political wing lives at the invitation of the Al-Thani, Kerry strengthened that troublemaking little pissant of a country. If you thought U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia—which in this dustup is a tacit ally of Egypt and Israel—could not get worse than they already are, you goofed: They just did. (But if you want to hear anti-Qatari venom that can singe the hair on your chin, better to go to Abu Dhabi or Dubai.)
Then worse still: Kerry ministered to arguably the world’s foremost anti-Semite, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Richard Cohen’s piece today, “Erdogan’s anti-Semitic fetish”, also leaves me bereft of criticism in the face of another Washington Post columnist who also regularly irritates me.) There are rumors that another Gazan flotilla will be launched, this time with the Turkish Navy as guardian. I hope this isn’t true, because no good can come of it.
And then worst of all: Kerry presents Israel with a draft of a ceasefire agreement that puts Hamas on the same level as Israel, and demeans Fatah and the PA, with which Israel is bound up in a legal if highly imperfect relationship; that would give Hamas the politically life-sustaining prize it seeks in the form of an “open borders” concession it can characterize as helping the people of Gaza; and that would prevent Israel from finishing the work of destroying the deadly tunnel network under the border.
A ceasefire under those terms would enable Hamas to resupply its war machine, bringing in unlimited numbers of missiles and mortars—and concrete, too, to rebuild and expand the tunnel network. It would enable Hamas to begin the next phase of conflict, in which it targets Israeli civilians while using Gazan civilians as human shields, at a time of its choosing. It would mean that all the IDF killed in this conflict would have died in vain.
Now, I have never been a particular fan of the current Israeli Prime Minister or his party, but no Israeli government could have stomached an outrageous document like that. That such a document, encompassing such a wildly wrongheaded view, could ever have been produced, let alone submitted to the cabinet in Jerusalem, effectively puts an end to U.S. influence on Israel for the duration of this Administration. What little trust endured after the blunders of the first term and the misconceived “peace process” initiative of the second term is now gone. And when the U.S. government loses the ability to influence Israel, those Arab parties that want something to do with Israel—but not too much in public—lose interest in Washington. Thus ditto U.S. influence in Cairo and Riyadh, and probably in Amman and Ramallah, too.
Think what this means in historical perspective. In past post-disengagement crises over Gaza, the U.S. Secretary of State was the big guy on the block. U.S. influence relied on our having the money and the biggest guns, true—and we still have those. But it relied more on having suasive reputational power with nearly every actor on the regional diplomatic stage. It relied as much or more, in other words, on the highly efficient and effective shadow of U.S. power, to quote Acheson, than on the power itself. We may have used Egypt’s table a few times in the past, but it was our game that was being played on that table. Now John Kerry, with Barack Obama’s fulsome help, has reduced the U.S. position to that of a message carrier for Hamas via Doha and Ankara. We have fallen from being the undisputed master of ceremonies to creeping around the region as a second-echelon go-between—and a failed one at that. (At a time like this a former State Department employee can barely resist quoting Elmer Fudd: “Oh, d’hawwah.”)
The disaster that is this Gazan War is not entirely, or even mainly, the fault of the Obama Administration, however. The nadir of U.S. influence reflects significant changes in regional realities as well as its own vast diplomatic malpractice. It reflects, for example, the fact that recent Israeli governments, by accelerating land grabs in the West Bank and raising new and, one suspects, deliberately obstacular demands on Palestinian Authority negotiators, have pushed ever more Palestinians into immoderate desperation. Insofar as U.S. policy is guilty of causing the present distress, it is the George W. Bush Administration’s doing, not the Obama Administration’s. Why?
Because it was the Bush Administration, flush with the willful delusions of the “forward strategy for freedom”, that sanctioned Hamas’s participation in the 2006 elections, even though those elections were predicated on the framework of the September 1993 Oslo Accords, which Hamas has always rejected outright and completely. Hamas only won those elections with plurality, not majority, vote counts because of Fatah’s political incompetence, true; but it never should have been permitted to participate in the first place. Then followed a slow-moving multilateral plot to dispossess Hamas of its victory, but Hamas preempted the plot with a bloody coup—and that’s what got this murderous, vicious bunch of fanatics ensconced in Gaza in the first place.
Please understand the main point: Hamas’s present position was contingent, not necessary and certainly not inevitable. Since U.S. policy had a significant share in causing this problem (along with others, yes, of course), which has paralyzed every attempt to make political progress among the protagonists as well as sired horrific violence, we arguably have some responsibility for solving it—for getting rid of this scourge. So why is John Kerry doing precisely the opposite?
It is a sad day when I applaud the failure of an initiative by an American Secretary of State, just as it’s a weird day when I applaud David Ignatius. It’s just one of those days, I guess.