Michael Young

Can Kerry make a difference?

Secretary of State John Kerry

Next week, the new US secretary of state, John Kerry, will be visiting the Middle East to discuss, among other things, Syria. It’s reassuring that Kerry’s first foreign trip will encompass a region that President Barack Obama has carefully avoided. However, there is much to make us doubt a substantial shift in Washington’s Syrian policy.


Kerry may not want to be reminded of how he once saw Syria as a ticket to foreign policy relevance and a step in his march toward Foggy Bottom. By opening a channel to the Assad regime that he felt could be exploited by the Obama administration, Kerry gambled that this would help him become the person most likely to succeed Hillary Clinton.


Kerry’s efforts led nowhere. And the senator saw early on during the Arab uprisings the murky alleyways into which his ties with the Syrian autocrat might lead. In a speech before the high-profile US-Islamic Forum, organized by the Brookings Institution, in April 2011, Kerry described Assad as someone aware of Syria’s problems. By then the revolt had started and Assad’s security forces had killed many people. Kerry’s failure to mention this, and his depiction of Assad as a man concerned by his people’s welfare, outraged many in the audience.


This was brought to Kerry’s attention and may have led him to take a step backward. To his credit, he subsequently maintained his distance from Assad and, fortunately, we did not hear much again about their friendship. With the Obama administration since then calling on Assad to step down, Kerry will not play that game anymore.


But what room does this leave for maneuvering on Syria? The only thing Kerry can do is advocate a policy in which the United States takes a more active role in supporting the Syrian opposition. But limiting this to the provision of non-lethal aid, as the US has done until now, will change nothing. Obama resisted sending weapons when senior officials debated this before the American elections in November, although four of his senior advisers were in favor of doing so.


Some argue things may change, but it will be up to Kerry to persuade Obama that a shift is worthwhile, assuming he believes this. The president is reluctant to involve the US in a proxy war, and worries that arms may reach militant Islamic groups who might use them against Americans or Israel. It will not be easy for Kerry to convince Obama that Syria can be turned into a win-win situation, the only kind favored by a risk-averse president with a minimal interest in the Middle East.


Nor is there any real sense that Kerry has great influence over the president. Recall that Obama did not name him as his secretary until after he had chosen Susan Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations. When Rice’s chances dived because of the inaccurate way that she portrayed the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, she withdrew.


Kerry then became the natural choice, though the initial reports had been that he would be appointed secretary of defense. Obama’s choice of Rice suggested something else: that the president wanted someone close at the State Department, to have better control over the foreign policy agenda. Perhaps Kerry was seen as too independent, even if after Rice’s withdrawal it was natural for the White House to choose him, as one of the most prominent foreign policy figures in Washington.


But that still does not indicate any particular closeness between the new secretary and Obama, though this may change. Nor has Kerry ever publicly disagreed with Obama over Syria. If anything, the view of observers is that Kerry will not rock the boat, let alone challenge a White House that refuses to be drawn into overseas conflicts.


But in Syria the alternatives are few. Assad will refuse to negotiate his own departure for as long as he feels he can survive politically. Neither Russia nor Iran will give up on him, because both fear that this would undermine their stakes in Syria. If the US is so convinced that Assad cannot remain in power, as officials have said many times, then it must ensure the prediction becomes true, mainly by giving the opposition the military means to overthrow his rule.


Admittedly, this will mean an escalation of the conflict. But it will also lead to fewer casualties than the grinding stalemate of today, which is only radicalizing Syrian society and creating a golden opportunity for militant Islamic movements to enter the fray. As in Bosnia during the early 1990s, it is often better to send weapons to the weaker parties, as was done then to the Muslim and Croatian forces, to compel the stronger side to accept a compromise or risk defeat.


Obama should look back at the experiences of President Bill Clinton. Clinton too sought to steer clear of the Bosnian conflict. It was only after the massacre at Srebrenica, and the indignation this provoked, that he reversed himself. There have been many Srebrenicas in Syria, but not the American reaction that greeted the crimes in Bosnia, so Obama’s standoffishness has not come with a political price tag.


But the world is not an extension of domestic American politics. Perhaps this is where Kerry will be most useful, in reminding Obama of the dangers of making global events secondary to politics at home. What he must do, first, is devise a credible foreign policy strategy. That’s because it’s difficult these days to explain what the US stands for in the world, therefore how we are supposed to interpret its actions. Hopefully, Kerry can provide the outlines of an answer.


Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon. He tweets @BeirutCalling.


Read this article in Arabic

Secretary of State John Kerry’s first foreign trip will encompass a region that President Barack Obama has carefully avoided. (AFP photo)

If anything, the view of observers is that Kerry will not rock the boat, let alone challenge a White House that refuses to be drawn into overseas conflicts.

  • chb

    Did Kerry's views lead him nowhere, indeed ? He's the Sec of State, now. There's some hope for Assad, yet.

    February 25, 2013