Secretary of State John Kerry can only tangentially be held accountable for our foreign policy inadequacies before he became secretary. He was, after all, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee so he could have held hearings on al-Qaeda’s post Osama bin Laden status. He could have gotten a thorough vetting of Benghazi, Libya, and our national security leaks. But let’s grant him that the major foreign policy decisions predating his tenure were not of his making. Still.
Former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams counts the important top posts at Foggy Bottom which Kerry has not filled. He admonishes Kerry:
Perhaps Secretary Kerry has names for each and every one of these posts and cannot get them approved at the White House. That would be a different problem. My impression is that there are names for a couple, and none yet for many others. Selecting, nominating, and confirming his own people should be a top priority for Secretary Kerry–more important than some of the trips he is taking. The task of managing the department cannot be left to anyone else and is not a minor aspect of his role. It’s time to adjust priorities and get a nominee announced for every one of these policy-level vacancies.
Then there is North Korea. With the crisis still hot, Kerry is already talking about going back to the negotiating table with Pyongyang. This is remarkable, given our track record of getting nothing from the gulag state while giving its Great Leader precisely what he wants, namely status and legitimacy. Max Boot is on the money in his observation that “the Obama administration is in serious danger of repeating the mistakes of its predecessors, who offered the North concessions which only convinced Pyongyang that it could use its nuclear arsenal to blackmail the West.” Conservative critics of the administration are now pleading for Congress to “push the President to develop a comprehensive strategy to strengthen our military alliances surrounding North Korea and begin the rollback of the ultimate source of this crisis—the Kim family regime. . . . includ[ing] aggressively targeting North Korea’s financial assets and proliferation activities, taking on North Korea’s humanitarian disaster, and exploring the possibility of creating an international reconstruction fund to prepare for Korean unification.”
And about those chemical weapons supposedly used in Syria? Now, as the BBC reports:
The UK is increasingly concerned there is evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria. Foreign Minister William Hague said the claims must be urgently investigated and perpetrators held to account. Meanwhile, soil samples gathered from random sites in Syria, have been smuggled to the UK for testing, British intelligence sources told the BBC. The evidence suggests “some use of chemical weapons”‘ but it is not clear by which side, the sources said.
How long will the U.S. administration avert its eyes, pretending that game-changer hasn’t occurred?
Then there is the “peace process.” Kerry put his own credibility and prestige on the line by talking about restarting the peace process, only to have the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas snub him by finally shoving Salam Fayyad out of the picture. This was after he seized on the monumentally silly idea of using Turkey in the “peace process.”
And meanwhile he’s starting to rack up Pinocchios, repeating inaccurate gossip that foreign students aren’t coming to the United States because of gun violence. My colleague Glenn Kessler writes that his “quote went around the world. He also appeared to say that ‘fewer students are coming’ to study in the United States. But the hard data shows that more students overall are studying in the United States — and that the decline from Japan has been ongoing for more than a decade because of factors that seem much more compelling (such as money woes and fewer students) than an anecdotal fear of gun violence. . . . He should realize he has a vast State Department that can vet his facts before he repeats a a similar anecdote.” Again, senators say silly things all the time; a secretary of state cannot afford to.
Maybe Kerry should pause. Come home, as Abrams recommends. And spend some time thinking through the policies he wants to pursue, garnering advice from inside and outside the State Department. Now it may be, in fact it’s more likely than not, that the White House continues to run foreign policy and keeps him on a short string. Well, in that case he should figure out what small and significant things he can accomplish, and allow the White House to flounder in messes of its own making.
This is the problem, of course, with putting lawmakers (Les Aspin, Chuck Hagel, Hillary Clinton, Kerry) in charge of managing huge organizations and constructing a national security agenda. Lawmakers can flap their gums at will. They really aren’t responsible for anything. They manage their office staff and that is about it. But, as we warned regarding Hagel’s nomination, these jobs are largely executive in nature. They require organizational skill, the ability to prioritize, finesse at bending the permanent civil service their way and working on the big picture while trusted underlings get the small stuff right. The president doesn’t have these skills in great abundance and so far most of his second term appointments, named primarily for their political loyalty, haven’t demoonstrated them either.
In sum, Kerry inherited a chaotic foreign policy. But now it’s up to him to make things better. He should stop trying to top Hillary Clinton in frequent flyer miles and work on besting her in the managerial departments.