June 21, 2013

Obama v Kerry: the new dividing line in US foreign policy

When Barack Obama asked John Kerry to be his secretary of state, the president appeared to have chosen someone whose instincts matched his own caution on foreign affairs.

A Vietnam veteran who spent nearly three decades in the Senate, Mr Kerry mocked Republican “neocons” at last year’s Democratic convention. At his confirmation hearing he cited a Henry Kissinger quote about a new era of emerging powers replacing superpower dominance.

High quality global journalism requires investment. Please share this article with others using the link below, do not cut & paste the article. See our Ts&Cs and Copyright Policy for more detail. Email ftsales.support@ft.com to buy additional rights.Yet after five months in office, it is becoming clearer that the principal dividing line in the Obama administration’s foreign policy, from Syria to the Israel-Palestinian peace process, is between the president and Mr Kerry.

While administration officials have acknowledged for some time that the state department was urging more US involvement in the Syrian conflict, the extent of the disagreements became sharper this week when Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg reported that Mr Kerry had argued “vociferously” for US air strikes against Syrian airfields at a White House meeting.For all the talk about ideological divisions between humanitarian intervention and realism, or about the promotion of supposed liberal hawks Susan Rice and Samantha Power, arguments within the administration often boil down to Mr Obama and Mr Kerry’s personal perceptions about how and when America should exercise its influence.

Mr Obama’s view of the Middle East reflects a Hippocratic instinct to first do no harm and his desire that after Afghanistan and Iraq, the US not rush into “one more war in the Middle East”, as he put it this week. For the president, second term political capital is something that has to be dispersed carefully – whether on getting involved in the Syrian conflict or backing a new round of the Israel-Palestinian peace process.Critics add that when faced with a problem that offers no good answers, the professorial president tends to split the difference – ordering a surge of troops in Afghanistan and announcing their departure date at the same time, and authorising the arming of Syria rebels, but not the weapons they say they need.

For Mr Kerry, who ran for president in 2004, he is now doing the other job he has long coveted and realises that this is likely his last chance to hold high office. He has spent a large part of his time over the past five months travelling around the Middle East dealing with both the Syrian war and the peace process. “For John, it is now or never,” says one former close associate. “He wants to get things done.”

On Syria, the internal debate has pitted the state department against the Pentagon, whose deep reluctance to get more involved is largely shared by Mr Obama. State department officials have argued that peace talks have little chance with the rebels losing ground on the battlefield to government forces. And after the president publicly warned that use of chemical weapons was a “red line”, they suggest it damages US credibility if the administration does not follow through.

“It is not just adversaries like the Iranians,” says one former state department official. “What will allies like the Japanese make of our rhetoric in the Middle East?” At the same time, the Pentagon has made no secret of its distaste for any military options in Syria. General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, has questioned whether it is possible to give arms to only the “moderate” rebels. “I have been cautious about the application of the military instrument of power,” he said last month. “It is not clear to me that it would produce the outcome [that most of us desire]”

Weary after more than a decade of wars and facing a new round of budget cuts, the military fears that any modest involvement now will probably pull it more deeply into the conflict. David Barno, a retired lieutenant general who commanded 20,000 troops in Afghanistan, says that when Kabul fell in late 2001, there were only 400 Americans on the ground in the country. “No one in their wildest imaginations would have imagined that more than a decade later there would still be 68,000 US soldiers there,” says Lt Gen Barno, now at the Center for a New American Security think tank. “Both Iraq and Afghanistan sobered a lot of people in the military about our ability to extricate ourselves from a conflict, especially when there are so many other regional actors involved.”

Mr Kerry has been equally energetic in trying to revive the Israel-Palestinian peace process and will be back in the region next week to try and prepare the ground for a new round of talks. While analysts are sceptical about the prospects for the talks in the current environment, they also say that Mr Kerry’s efforts will come to naught if he does not get strong public backing from the president.

“The White House has been passive while State wants to get engaged,” says Vali Nasr, a former state department official who is now the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “It is still not clear if the White House will support a plan that would require a substantial US commitment, including the direct engagement of the president.”