Kerry gets credit for moving ball on thorny foreign-policy issues

McClatchy Washington BureauNovember 20, 2013 

— With U.S. negotiators in Geneva this week in hopes of putting the finishing touches on an agreement in which Iran trades nuclear transparency for sanctions relief, foreign policy analysts are giving Secretary of State John Kerry credit for new signs of life on long-stagnant international debates, though they caution that the revivals could prove short-lived if they aren’t managed delicately.

The talks in Geneva are the latest in a string of high-risk negotiations under Kerry’s stewardship to resolve issues that have long stymied policymakers. Kerry and his team already helped to broker the removal of Syria’s chemical arsenal, renewed shuttle diplomacy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, warmed up relations with Iran and got the disorganized Syrian opposition closer to peace talks with President Bashar Assad’s government.

Analysts agree that victory remains distant on all those fronts, but they see reason for a cautious optimism in how Kerry at least has blown dust off foreign policy pieces that have sat untouched for years. Progress, they said, depends on how willing the U.S. will be to pursue those paths over the reservations of close allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, and over sabotage attempts by the likes of al Qaida in Syria and hard-line factions in Iran.

“There’s every reason to continue to be skeptical, but I’d much rather be in a heated debate about the issues than talk about what we may talk about if we ever got to the table,” said Laurie Dundon, a former State Department diplomat who’s now a Paris-based foreign policy analyst with the Truman National Security Project and the Partnership for Secure America.

“Kerry has significantly moved the ball on Iran,” she added. “I don’t think we can credit him personally with creating the opening – certainly sanctions were a great factor – but his capturing this window of opportunity is a choice for diplomacy, and one that the White House has called for.”

Getting the U.S. and international partners to re-examine outdated policies is a good start, analysts say, and a rejoinder to Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain’s recent criticism of Kerry as “a human wrecking ball” and to The Washington Post’s recent description of Kerry as so “conspicuously detached from on-the-ground realities” that he’s at risk of being “remembered as a self-deceiving bumbler.”

The more sympathetic view of Kerry notes that the issues he’s tackled in a short time are so thorny and the climate of partisanship so intense that it would be virtually impossible to come up with policies that have universal appeal. He’s also had to wage battles inside the administration to save his ideas; news reports say that Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice are at odds on Egypt, Syria and other fronts.

Kerry’s focus these days is the Iran nuclear talks, which have come under fire as naive from Israel and its many supporters in Congress. Kerry is expected to visit Israel soon for the kind of reassurance mission he’s already conducted after flare-ups with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and which left him open to McCain’s criticism of running diplomacy by “fire drill.”

Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council research center and Washington correspondent for the Middle East-focused Al-Monitor.com, said the resistance to the nuclear deal came from a failure to see – or perhaps a willful blindness to – the opportunities presented by the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate who’d signaled a willingness to work with the West and get Iran off the list of pariah states.

“This is not something Kerry dreamed up and said, ‘Let’s give it the college try.’ It’s from a change of circumstances in Iran,” Slavin said.

The opposition from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies in the U.S. Congress, Slavin said, comes from their discomfort with how the U.S. is adapting policy toward a Middle East that’s in flux after a tumultuous few years of mass revolts and ensuing turmoil. It’ll be Kerry’s job to sell the revamped policy to dubious allies without pandering or missing opportunities that are in the U.S. interest.

“Netanyahu is psychologically having a great deal of trouble adjusting to the fact that he won’t have Iran as his scapegoat anymore. He’s sung the same tune for 20 years,” Slavin said. “Israel has over 100 nuclear weapons. It should feel no insecurity on this front. And Iran is not suicidal.”

Kerry didn’t create the opportunities that are now being explored for Syria, Middle East peace and Iran, analysts said, but so far he and the White House seem committed to examining them in a new light, perhaps more mindful of the president’s second-term legacy now that President Barack Obama’s health-insurance overhaul is flailing.

Kerry has said he’s been given enormous latitude from the White House to revive these issues, which could mean he ends up with the blame or the credit, depending on how things go in the volatile, unpredictable Middle East.

“We have seen significant progress in breaking us out of the rut we’ve been in, but we’re not quite at the finish line,” said Dundon, the Paris-based analyst and former U.S. diplomat.

Email: hallam@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @HannahAllam

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