Kerry's Careless Diplomacy

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John Kerry, Secretary of State in the Obama Administration, has been meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. I believe Secretary Kerry must stop doing so, lest he undermine America’s foreign policy with this dangerous adversary. It’s an American peculiarity: despite eschewing the noble ranks of Lords and Barons, the national tradition is to refer to people by their former titles. Donald Trump, formally, will be President Trump forever. John Kerry –unless he wins higher office in 2020—will be Secretary Kerry for all time (ditto Secretary Clinton). In Kerry’s case, his title is a reminder that his backdoor diplomacy can cause the country real problems.

I’m not here to accuse Secretary Kerry of Treason. True, American Special Forces and Iranian Revolutionary Guards are both milling about the battlefield in the end-stages of the Syrian Civil War. Despite this, there is absolutely no suggestion so far that Kerry is giving aid to the enemy.

I’m not even interested in prosecuting Kerry under the Logan Act, a law that forbids citizens from appointing themselves as diplomats. That being said, I wouldn’t mind seeing a Logan Act trial, if only to see the 18th century statute crushed on principle by the First and Ninth Amendments. Rather, it’s a message every nine-year-old needs to learn: just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. I claim Kerry is being dangerous simply by muddying waters.

Let me be clear: I’m not privy to Kerry’s conversations with Foreign Minister Zarif, and that’s much of the point. We don’t know what was said, nor does the wider world, and that can only sow confusion.

Some countries, like the United States, have a professional and mature foreign service. These can be America’s allies (Canada and the United Kingdom), her adversaries (Russia and China), or proactively neutral countries (Switzerland).

Other countries have neither the history nor the adults-in-the-room infrastructure. Consider Iran, upended by the Revolution in 1979. An early foreign minister to Ayatollah Khomeini, Sadegh Ghotzbadeh, was dismissed, arrested, released, re-arrested, tortured, tried, and executed. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs there is constantly the subject of a tug of war between the President, the Supreme Leader, and the Guardian Council. Iran continues to be a state sponsor of terrorism.

Dealing with this confusing, evil lot should be left to the current State Department, the CIA, and others that those two organizations deem relevant. Whatever his future political ambitions, (former) Secretary Kerry should not be putting in his two cents behind the scenes.

It’s tough enough for America to make herself understood in the Middle East, even when speaking with one voice. Consider the case of April Glaspie, US Ambassador to Iraq in the run-up to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. There is some dispute as to what Ambassador Glaspie said precisely, in a July 1990 meeting with Saddam. There is no disputing that some Iraqis heard words to the effect of “the US isn’t interested in intervening in Arab-Arab border disagreements”, and Saddam thought he would not face a wider war if he overran Kuwait.

Ever since, Ambassador Glaspie has repeatedly denied that she sought to convey anything other than the message that Iraq and Kuwait should settle their differences by peaceful means. There is no reason whatsoever to doubt her; the Iraqis misunderstanding, accidental or willful, caused them to start a war. That was a situation where everyone with America’s best interests at heart was trying to sing from the same hymnal. If Kerry is out freelancing, things could get bad quickly. Kerry has made his distaste for the Trump administration clear. Kerry says that Trump has the insecurity of a teenage girl.

And who knows, you ask? Maybe Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif were talking about innocuous things or simply reminiscing. Well, yeah, who knows—and if the Trump Administration, and America’s allies around the world don’t know, unverified perceptions can be as bad an any reality.

In the transition period between the Obama and Trump administrations, the incoming group tried to set backchannels to Russia. Thoughtful people condemned that. One of the perpetrators, future National Security Advisor Lt.-Gen Michael Flynn (Ret.), knew it was such a bad idea that he lied to the FBI, falsely denying he ever did it. Just as we knew in the Flynn matter that freelance diplomacy was a bad idea then, it’s a bad idea now.

Secretary Kerry knows it too—and he should apologize and knock it off.