Politics & Policy

Bashar’s Buddy Onstage

John Kerry, reporting for duty — to bash Romney’s foreign-policy views

Tonight, another familiar face will address the Democrats: Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.

Yes, the principal critic of Mitt Romney’s foreign-policy vision will be the senator who is considered Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s best friend in Washington — a tired drone from the Foreign Relations Committee who has somehow become the frontrunner to be the next secretary of state if Obama wins a second term.

Kerry’s speech is likely to be a very predictable one: Mitt Romney is a dangerous cowboy who disregards world opinion and embraces a foreign-policy philosophy that recklessly pursues American interests and dismisses the objections of allies and of vital, effective, trustworthy international institutions like the United Nations. Perhaps the phrase “global test” will make a comeback.

The current secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has made clear that she will serve only one term, and Politico describes Kerry’s desire to finish his career as the country’s top diplomat as “one of Washington’s badly kept secrets.”

The problem is that Kerry has gotten most of the biggest foreign-policy calls of the past two decades wrong.

He voted against the authorization of force for the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

He opposed President Bush’s 2007 surge in Iraq, calling it “a tragic mistake.” The surge, he elaborated, “won’t end the violence; it won’t provide security; . . . it won’t turn back the clock and avoid the civil war that is already underway; it won’t deter terrorists, who have a completely different agenda; it won’t rein in the militias.” In September 2007, Kerry voted in favor of a resolution introduced by Senator Carl Levin (D., Mich.) to withdraw all U.S. troops within 90 days.

Where Kerry isn’t wrong, he is living up to his flip-flopper label: He voted for the Iraq War and then later insisted he voted only to threaten the use of force, not to actually authorize the use of force. He initially supported and then opposed a funding bill for the Iraq War in late 2003, which prompted the confusing defense, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”

He has called Israel’s security fence “a barrier to peace” and “a legitimate act of self-defense.”

In 2004, one of the biggest applause lines in Kerry’s acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in Boston was, “We shouldn’t be opening firehouses in Baghdad and shutting them in the United States of America.” By February of this year, Kerry was denouncing his own applause line: “Cutting foreign aid has always been a guaranteed applause line on the political stump . . .  efforts in Congress to cut billions from the president’s proposed budget for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are short-sighted.”

In May 2011, shortly after the U.S. Navy SEALs successfully raided Osama bin Laden’s compound, Kerry was quick to emphasize that U.S. military efforts in that part of the world were far from over: “With the death of Bin Laden, some people will ask why we don’t pack up and leave Afghanistan. We can’t do that. . . . Our military is making significant inroads clearing the south of insurgents. But we expect a significant Taliban counterattack this spring to regain some of these areas. We also know insurgents are spreading into other areas of Afghanistan as we drive them from their bases in the south.” But one month later, Kerry was saying the cost of the war was “unsustainable” and urging President Obama to speed up troop withdrawals.

Eight years after his presidential bid, Kerry is still fond of a statement as opaque and messy as a spilled bowl of pea soup. Discussing the WikiLeaks documents and U.S. policy in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Kerry said, “Those policies are at a critical stage and these documents may very well underscore the stakes and make the calibrations needed to get the policy right more urgent.”

The policies are at a critical stage! (Quick, how was that moment different from any other of past years?) The documents may underscore the stakes! The urgency of the need to make the calibrations may get even more urgent!

But it is Kerry’s dedicated cultivation of Bashar Assad — one of his primary foreign-policy focuses since his 2004 presidential bid — that most clearly illustrates his naïveté.

On March 15, 2011, the first sparks of a national uprising against Assad’s regime ignited; within days there were large-scale protests in several cities, and police responded with live ammunition in some cases. About 70 Syrian civilians were killed in the initial weeks.

At the end of that month, Secretary Clinton uttered one of the administration’s most regrettable lines about the Syrian dictator in an interview on CBS’s Face the Nation: “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”

While Kerry’s staff denies that he ever referred to Assad as a “reformer,” there is little doubt that Clinton had Kerry in mind when she made that remark. The Wall Street Journal reported at the time:

A key supporter of Mr. Assad in Washington has been Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The former presidential candidate has held nearly a half-dozen meetings with Mr. Assad in recent years, according to his staff. The two men have sought to map out the terms of a renewed Syrian-Israel peace track.

Even this month, as protests starting gripping Syria, Mr. Kerry said he thought Syria’s president was an agent for change.

“President Assad has been very generous with me in terms of the discussions we have had,” Mr. Kerry said during a March speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “I think it’s incumbent on us to try to move that relationship forward in the same way.”

The Obama administration and some Western governments, however, have voiced increasing skepticism about Mr. Kerry’s outreach to Mr. Assad. Last month, the State Department and French government intervened to block a scheduled meeting between the two men in Damascus, said officials briefed on the matter. They were concerned the trip would signal Western weakness just weeks after the collapse of Lebanon’s government.

In the Carnegie speech, Kerry said, “My judgment is that Syria will move; Syria will change, as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West and economic opportunity that comes with it and the participation that comes with it.”

As recently as February 2010, Kerry was telling Middle Eastern leaders that he believed Israel should return the Golan Heights to Syria.

Of course, as the uprising against the regime has continued, Syria has indeed moved and changed, in an exponentially more ruthless and dangerous direction. The ongoing conflict has killed about 24,000 Syrians, according to opposition forces, and displaced about 1.5 million refugees.

As Assad’s willingness to spill blood in large amounts in order to hold onto power has become indisputable, Kerry has given up on his Damascus host. At a hearing last month, Kerry declared, “The international community — with American leadership and support — must continue to help the opposition both in ending Assad’s reign of terror and in preparing for what comes next after he is gone.”

There is a long tradition of U.S. senators vastly underestimating the ruthlessness and intransigence of foreign dictators; an oft-repeated though unconfirmed quote has Senator William Borah (R., Idaho) responding to the news of Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, “Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler — all this might have been averted.”

“John Kerry is no Hillary Clinton,” concludes Richard Grenell, who served at the U.N. for the George W. Bush administration and who was briefly foreign-policy adviser to the Romney campaign. “Like President Obama, Kerry believes most dictators just haven’t met him yet.”

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

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