September 15, 2016
…there has been something honorable, even heroic, about the persistence, hard work and faith in diplomacy that this decorated Vietnam veteran and former head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has brought to his search for peaceful solutions.–NT Times Editorial Board
Since becoming Secretary of State more than three years ago, John Kerry has been a man on a mission — multiple missions, in fact — relentlessly traveling the globe in search of diplomatic solutions to the world’s toughest problems.
His efforts have been daring and, at times, quixotic. He was no more successful than his predecessors in securing a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. But without his persistence, the Iran nuclear deal in 2015 and last December’s global climate change agreement in Paris would almost certainly have been unattainable.
The cease-fire in Syria he negotiated last week with Russia could lead to yet another triumph — an end to the violence that has killed more than 400,000 Syrians and left many more without adequate food, water and medical supplies. But much could go wrong, as it did with an earlier truce. Success depends on the cooperation of Russia, a duplicitous player in Syria’s tragic civil war and the main defender of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.
The agreement also has powerful critics inside the Obama administration, including Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. On Tuesday, Pentagon officials refused to say whether they would comply with their part of the deal, which calls on the United States to share information with the Russians on Islamic State targets in Syria if the cease-fire holds for seven days. This would be an unusual and possibly risky collaboration with a Russian regime that has become increasingly adversarial and could profit from learning American military secrets.
Such criticism is not uncommon among outside experts as well as administration officials who believe that Mr. Kerry too often pursues unwinnable goals and settles for imperfect outcomes. But there has been something honorable, even heroic, about the persistence, hard work and faith in diplomacy that this decorated Vietnam veteran and former head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has brought to his search for peaceful solutions.
Even as President Obama sought to keep America out of new military entanglements, Mr. Kerry has been determined to keep the nation engaged diplomatically and lead the world toward constructive results, despite times when the problems seem intractable. At 72, he is unlikely to run for office again, which gives him a certain freedom to swing for the diplomatic fences, although it may end in failure. And for a long time, Mr. Obama gave Mr. Kerry plenty of room to run.
Mr. Kerry sometimes displays a naïve belief in his ability to win people to his side if he keeps talking long enough. That did not work with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and the Palestinians, who never engaged in sustained peace negotiations despite Mr. Kerry’s countless trips to the region. In Afghanistan, Mr. Kerry’s tireless interventions persuaded two competing Afghan politicians, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, to create a coalition government, an arrangement that now appears on the verge of collapse.
If anything, Syria has been still more complicated, involving many parties, including the Assad government, Iran, Russia, the Islamic State, an affiliate of Al Qaeda and American-backed rebels. Mr. Obama has provided arms to moderate rebel groups and deployed Special Operations forces, but has nowhere near the leverage on the battlefield and at the negotiating table as Vladimir Putin, who has shown no hesitation in conducting lethal airstrikes on Mr. Assad’s behalf.
Mr. Kerry, who tried and failed to persuade Mr. Obama to apply more military pressure in Syria, has thus had to work with what he could, and it’s a wonder that he has had any success at all. After Mr. Obama decided in 2013 against bombing Syria for using chemical weapons against civilians, Mr. Kerry managed to broker a deal with Russia to remove chemical weapons from the country. To get the current cease-fire, he warned Moscow that if the violence was not halted, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states would send more weapons to the rebel groups.
He insists he is not being unrealistic, although he knows from past experience that Russia could be playing a cynical game and that the cease-fire could fall apart. But you can hear the anguish when he says that this “may be the last chance we have to save a united Syria.” He deserves immense credit for trying.