Secretary Clinton to Secretary Kerry – From Strategic Vision to Magnificent Obsession

The Middle East has been a magnificent but dangerously futile obsession for American Presidents. Nothing good has come of their middle eastern forays whether they were conducted from a right wing military view or a left wing humanitarian view. That is why we compared the middle east to the notoriously dangerous island of Greek Sirens two weeks ago.

Ronald Reagan was the last President to avoid the temptation of the middle east. That is why he has been  the most successful recent President by far. President Obama also managed to avoid getting tangled in the middle east in his first term. This avoidance was due both to his own reluctance and to the vision of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who wanted to pivot to Asia. As noted geopolitical strategist Robert Kaplan wrote this week:

  • “… the only strategic innovation of Obama’s presidency thus far has been his “pivot” to Asia. The pivot meant that rather than withdraw inward following two wars in the Middle East — a policy of quasi-isolationism that served America poorly throughout its history — America would instead shift its focus to a more important region of the world. You may not agree with the pivot, or with its assumptions, but in the uncreative world of State Department bureaucracy it does count as a major innovation.”

But, as Kaplan added, “Kerry has now undermined it“. Why? According to Kaplan,

  • “Chaos in the Middle East is more important to him [Kerry] than historic power shifts in Asia and Europe. Passion, rather than geopolitical vision, drives this secretary of state. And it is a very derivative passion that drives him: one that has its origin in media obsessions

The last thought is really an insightful comment that takes us back to Kaplan’s important article America’s Imperial Class. In that article, Kaplan wrote,

  • ” … the United States periodically sends its forces into harm’s way in imperial-like interventions, seeking to oust this foreign tyrant or that for supposedly threatening the empire’s interests. Of course, American officials, of whatever administration, always claim that they are acting in such a fashion for the sake of human rights and humanity … these imperial-like military interventions have often been ill advised, but they happen nevertheless. They happen partly because there is an imperial class in the imperial capital of Washington, D.C., that agitates for them”

This “imperial class” is made up of think tanks of Washington DC and of prominent voices in America media. It is a community that is linked together in several ways and they share the same passions even though they might come from different sides.

Nothing matters more to this imperial class than the middle east. And why shouldn’t it? That region has consumed their working lives for the past 25 years and made their careers. That is why an accomplished woman member who complains passionately about women not having it all gets even more passionate about Turkish leaders not having cojones to invade Syria. That is why a noted columnist writes far more passionate articles about the middle east than about the rest of the world combined. The rest of the world looks flat to him while the middle east is the only mountain he sees worth climbing.

Compared to this magnificent & forever fruitless obsession, Asia seems boring. Yes, it is the home to the largest countries, countries that might end up as major military powers in the next 15-20 years. Yes it is already home to the 2nd, 3rd largest economies and to another that probably will become the 4th largest within 10-15 years. Yes it is the region that will become America’s greatest ally-versary in the next 10 years. And this is a region where America can actually play a successful role. Playing that role was Secretary Clinton’s passion and it was a passion rooted in strategic vision & common sense.

In contrast, Secretary Kerry is driven to be a part of the tragedy that is the middle east. As Kaplan wrote this week,

  • “Middle Eastern chaos is tragic in human terms but so far limited in its effect on the world economy, and, in any case, is something that the United States can do very little about.”

The last part is what defines an obsession, a quixotic obsession of an overly emotional mind. Nothing that Secretary Kerry has done suggests a sound plan based on American interests. Instead, according to Kaplan,

  • “… Kerry, rather than communicate leverage, has signaled only an obsession with the human rights consequences of Syrian chaos, even as the Russians must now doubt Washington’s threats to ever use force against Damascus. Rather than an overarching strategy to deal with encroaching Russian and Chinese power in Eurasia, Kerry has instead demonstrated strategic incoherence: the sacrificing of considerable geopolitical consequences for the sake of an American president’s domestic reputation.”

As a result,

  • ” … the Obama administration’s perceived lack of cunning in the Middle East will continue to have ripple effects around the globe.”

What ripple effects?

  • ” … if you are a country threatened by a militarily rising China — like Japan or Vietnam or the Philippines — you know that Hillary Clinton was a more reliable friend than is John Kerry with his occasional drive-by visit”
  • “The Obama administration’s message to countries like Poland, Romania, Ukraine and Azerbaijan is one of neglect combined with weakness

President Obama has been a very lucky politician and we greatly respect the quality called luck. The world can change in the next three years. The Chinese might be become malleable if their economy keeps slowing. The price of oil could collapse forcing Iran to make a deal and creating problems for the Russian economy. And the middle east might cool down by sheer exhaustion from its brutal civil wars.

So, none of the above may matter and Secretary Kerry might even get a Nobel Peace Prize himself. But is such a hope for luck the best way to run American foreign policy?

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