U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Photographer: Harold Cunningham/Getty Images

Two Views on Where U.S. Diplomacy Has Made Inroads, or Not

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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James Gibney, a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board, disagreed with part of a column last week by columnist Eli Lake. Their dialogue follows.

J.G.: Kudos on a sharp column taking U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to task for his feckless diplomacy, especially in the Middle East. That said, I take big issue with this sentence: "Then there is the stubborn fact that it's difficult to find places in the world where the U.S. has advanced its interests or values in the last four years."

This reminds me of the "What have the Romans ever done for us?" segment from Monty Python's "Life of Brian."

Let's start with the Paris climate agreement -- which will affect much more than the roughly 5 percent of the world's population that lives in the Middle East. Does that not advance U.S. interests or values?

Maybe that's too goo-goo. Here's a more traditional security issue: Which of the seven collective defense agreements that the U.S. has are in worse shape than they were four years ago? I'd say one, the Philippines, and that's not because of anything that President Barack Obama did.

U.S. relations with Latin America? Definitely better, thanks to the U.S. opening to Cuba, the administration's robust support for the Colombia peace process, and a groundbreaking assistance package for Central America.

Africa? U.S. diplomatic attention to Nigeria -- including by Kerry -- ensured that its 2015 election produced a remarkable positive transition in Africa's most populous nation and second biggest economy.

Myanmar? That has to count for something, right? Maybe not. Then again, there's tighter relations and cooperation with India, the world's biggest democracy, and the unlikely Obama-Modi bromance.

After eight years, the Obama administration's foreign policy glass is beyond half full. You do your argument on Syria a disservice by saying the administration's efforts came up empty.

E.L.: Thanks, James. I think you raise some fair points. I will grant you Myanmar, India and Nigeria -- although Myanmar is more of a first-term success.

On the climate-change agreement, it could be huge. But it could also amount to very little. There is no enforcement mechanism, and Obama didn't see fit to treat it as a treaty back here in America. This means the next president could choose to adhere or ignore it.

On Colombia, there is no doubt that the peace deal is a good thing, but the heavy lifting on this began decades ago with Plan Colombia and the success of President Andres Pastrana Arango in the 2000s to beat back the FARC. The pope also played a major role in getting the final details together. Also we are reminded over the weekend that we shouldn't count our chickens on this one either. 

All of this said, I think you miss the forest for the trees. You mention our major defense agreements. I would say in all of them, there is a lot worry for U.S. partners because Obama and Kerry have failed to address great power competition from Russia and China. What's more, in the Middle East, Kerry has not been able to calm traditional U.S. allies who are freaking out about how Iran is out of the box, so to speak, after the nuclear deal. These are big shifts, and this administration has been flat footed. 

Finally, I would say I found it kind of amazing that Kerry decided to tick off areas where U.S. policy has failed -- Libya, Afghanistan, South China Sea -- to show how engaged he is in world crises. This is like asking for an A for effort. 

J.G.: In return for you granting me Myanmar, India and Nigeria, I will grant you that Syria and Libya are utter disasters, though perhaps for reasons different than yours.

Obama will never live down Syria. His failure to enforce his red line on Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons paved the way for today’s unceasing slaughter. That said, I don’t think the U.S. could have, or should have, used its military forces to end Syria’s civil war; what the U.S. could and should have done is demonstrate that the use of chemical weapons brings kinetic consequences, and that the U.S. president does not make empty threats. Both Assad and Putin might have behaved differently if he had; certainly there would have been less likelihood of chlorine barrel bombs. By the way, these are not (as you say in your piece) “allowed” by the Chemical Weapons Convention that Syria signed pledging to get rid of its chemical weapons; they are merely permitted by a United Nations Security Council too paralyzed to act.

The failure to plan for post-Qaddafi Libya was strategic malpractice on a grand scale, which even Obama now acknowledges.

As to forests and trees, I think my forest is different from yours. In my forest, the U.S. recognizes that its power to shape events at a reasonable cost is limited, and that the answer to the return of great power politics is alliances. I disagree with you that many of America’s European and Asian allies worry that the U.S. is unwilling to play that game. If anything, much of Old Europe wants to make nice with Putin. I give the U.S. credit for holding the Crimea sanctions together, and not moving faster than the slowest ship in the convoy – a mistake the Reagan administration made in dealing with pipeline sanctions in the 1980s. Likewise, I’d say that the Japanese are the exception in Asia in seeking a tougher U.S. stance on China -- and even they may mostly just want more reassurance (there can never be enough) about the U.S. willingness to stand by its alliance commitments.

On Iran, you’re right that the U.S. has failed to reassure its traditional allies. What’s more, they’re right to worry that Iran is out of the box. That’s a larger geopolitical trend that they are, for worse and better, on the wrong side of. (Though Israel had no problem with a strong Iran in the days of the Shah.)

I’d actually give Kerry credit for averting a near-civil war in Afghanistan after the election. That said, the larger Afghan policy -- is the war over, or isn’t it? -- falls into the “dumb mistakes” category. And the way the administration handled the decision on freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea must have had the Chinese laughing in befuddlement. 

E.L.: You write, "In my forest, the U.S. recognizes that its power to shape events at a reasonable cost is limited, and that the answer to the return of great power politics is alliances."

On this we actually agree. But I think you underestimate just how much Obama's Middle East bungles poison relationships in Europe and the region. Put another way, our allies watch carefully how the U.S. treats its other allies and adjust accordingly.

So what do they see in Syria? Shortly after the U.S. cuts a nuclear deal with Iran, Iran and Russia begin plotting a new offensive in Syria. Instead of trying to check this escalation, Kerry begs his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to begin anew the political negotiations in Geneva. Lavrov lies to him and puts him off, and as Kerry is analyzing what interests and values he may share with Russia, Russia and Iran begin to change facts on the ground.

All of this counts as a betrayal of the Syrians the U.S. and its allies in the region had been arming, and who were having some success against Assad. Obama's indifference to his initial goal of supporting the ouster of Assad also undermines America's regional Arab allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, who believed the U.S. shared its goal.

How is then perceived outside of the Middle East? Much of new Europe sees a policy that will allow Russia to act with unearned prestige in a region where it hasn't been a major player since the 1960s. Is it any wonder that old Europe is looking to cut deals with Russia, just as so many U.S. allies do as well?

This is where I think Obama gets it dangerously wrong. He doesn't understand that by seeking clean slates with Iran and Russia, he undermines America's traditional friendships. And what has he gotten for his reset and nuclear deal with Iran? Very little. Other than the narrow and time-limited bargain on nukes, Iran is more aggressive than ever. Russia agreed to the START treaty, but is now on a spree after four years of reset. Meanwhile, America's traditional allies are left questioning America's staying power.

One more point on Syria. It's true that the chemical weapons convention bans the use of chlorine bombs on civilians. I wrote that the deal Kerry cut with Russia on Syria has allowed Syria to use chlorine against civilians with no consequences. Russia of course was the main reason Syria acknowledged and handed over its other chemical weapons back in 2013. So in a sense Kerry cut a deal with a chlorine loop hole, at least in practice.

Finally on China, I suppose we can differ on U.S. allies there besides Japan. On Asia generally, I defer to you. But in the Philippines, I think the U.S. has been weak on the South China Sea. After the Hague ruling, the U.S. position has been to encourage the Philippines to work out an arrangement on the artificial islands the tribunal just ruled was illegal. Either the U.S. supports the ruling or not. But the Obama position since has tried to have it both ways.

So I grant there Obama has had some diplomatic success, but this success is overshadowed by his diplomatic errors.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the authors of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net