By the time Secretary of State John Kerry neared the end of a 12-day tour of the Middle East and Asia, he’d claimed progress on three of the most vexing foreign policy issues facing the U.S. without tangible signs of success on any of them.
Kerry, who was due back in the U.S. today, said he’s bolstered international opposition to North Korea’s nuclear program, won agreement with Russia for an eventual peace conference on the Syrian war and made headway in bringing Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table for the first time in almost three years.
“I know progress when I see it, and we are making progress,” Kerry said in Tel Aviv after concluding three days and nights of almost-sleepless shuttle diplomacy between Israel and Jordan.
In five months on the job, the former Democratic senator who headed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has been setting ambitious, if amorphous, goals on big issues. In logging about 22,500 miles (36,200 kilometers) on this trip, he offered mostly aspirational aims while steadfastly refusing to set any time lines. His biggest investment of time and prestige was in the stalled Mideast peace process, as he held three meetings each with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
“The problem with Kerry’s approach right now is that he is more invested in these negotiations than they are,” Aaron David Miller, vice president of the Wilson Center, a Washington policy group, said in an interview. “That’s a very bad place for the negotiator to be.”
On North Korea, Kerry used the annual ministerial meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Brunei to shore up commitments by China, Japan and South Korea to oppose the Pyongyang regime’s nuclear-weapons program.
“All four of us are absolutely united and absolutely firm in our insistence that the future with respect to North Korea must include denuclearization,” he said.
He didn’t outline any new steps that the countries are taking and didn’t suggest North Korea was showing signs of a change in course.
On Syria, Kerry sought to shift the debate away from how much the U.S. should do to aid the rebels after President Barack Obama approved sending them small arms rather than heavier weaponry to battle the Bashar al-Assad regime’s tanks and aircraft.
“I’m not at liberty and I’m not free to talk about” specific weapons, Kerry said in Doha, Qatar. He met there with foreign ministers from countries including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France and Germany. They adopted a joint statement allowing “each country in its own way” to provide assistance.
Instead, Kerry said yesterday at a press conference in Brunei that he’d had a “very in-depth conversation” with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and “made progress” on preparations for a peace conference aimed at ending the two-year-old civil war that has claimed more than 93,000 lives.
Kerry said the conference should “happen sooner rather than later” while indicating it will probably have to wait until September. The U.S. and Russia already have a meeting scheduled in July on other matters and “August is very difficult for Europeans and others,” Kerry said, in what may have been a reference to vacation schedules.
When Kerry and Lavrov committed in May to jointly press for Syrian peace negotiations, the initial goal was to schedule talks by the end of that month.
At a stop in India last week, Kerry pushed for greater cooperation to curb greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to global warming.
“Today we must recognize the science of climate change is screaming at us for action,” Kerry said in a speech in New Delhi. “Working together, the United States and India can make this leap and it will be to our benefit and the world’s.”
Left unsaid was whether India had agreed to any new steps on climate change as it tries to grow its economy.
Most of all, Kerry has thrown himself into the Middle East peace process, even as Syria’s civil war, political unrest in Egypt and Iran’s nuclear program all threaten to overtake his agenda.
On Kerry’s fifth trip to the region in as many months, two days of planned talks became three as he said he saw signs of progress. The change required canceling a planned visit to Abu Dhabi and curtailing time spent in Brunei.
What emerged was a promise by Kerry that a deal was “within reach.” In the only tangible sign, Kerry said he was leaving some of his staff in the region to work on it.
Caution in disclosing results so far is appropriate because “they’re negotiations about the basis for talks -- talks about talks about talks,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow with the American Task Force on Palestine, a Washington-based group that advocates a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“When you start at the point we managed to reach over the last few years, proceeding cautiously has merit,” he said in an interview. “If you start revealing what the parties are willing to give up, you put politicians into a defensive crouch.”
Miller, a former U.S. envoy to the Middle East, said there’s a “reasonable chance that Kerry will succeed in resuming negotiations and produce a package of bells and whistles, sweeteners designed to keep the parties at the table.” These would include “economic assistance, prisoner releases, security guarantees for Israel,” he said.
For now, Miller said, “This is Kerry’s peace process because Obama doesn’t own it, and neither does Netanyahu or Abbas.”
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