Schmitt and Pletka discuss Secretary Kerry’s first overseas trip

From February 24th to March 6th, Secretary of State John Kerry will visit nine nations: the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar.  The Department of State is billing this first trip as a "listening tour" where he will touch base with key allies in Europe and the Middle East with a focus on the upheavals in the Middle East. AEI scholars, including former Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senior Professional Staff Member Danielle Pletka, an expert on the Near East and South Asia, and former Senate Intelligence Committee minority staff director Gary Schmitt, who will comment on the Europe part of the trip, will briefly offer their perspective on the trip and what it means in terms of US foreign policy. Presentations will be followed by a Q&A period.

Gary Schmitt:

I think I’ll just begin with a couple general remarks. The first thing, of course, is that some were surprised that Kerry is headed to Europe first as opposed to East Asia. Given the White House's talk about rebalancing to Asia and putting new emphasis on Asia over the past year and a half, it took some folks by surprise that Kerry’s first trip would be to Europe. Frankly, I don’t think it’s that surprising. To make a very basic point, Secretary Kerry’s first trip is obviously designed to be in his comfort zone. He’s lived in Europe and traveled there extensively, and I think reasonably enough, the secretary understands that for a successful first trip, you have to go to a place you know, and also meet with folks you know in the various governments. So, I don’t think it’s that big of a surprise [that he is going to Europe first].

The second reason I think it’s not surprising is that even though the stops will be in Europe, I think much of the discussion in these capitals will be on issues such as the Middle East, North Africa, and Afghanistan. The administration believes, rightly, that they need Europe’s help on most of these issues to avoid [in their minds] getting further sucked into some of the problems of the region, and actually disentangling themselves from some of the situations that they find themselves in today. The fact that he’s going to Europe probably has less to do with Europe per se and more to do with what Europe can do with the US in addressing issues in the Middle East.

Also, since Prime Minister Abe is in town today for meetings with the president and Secretary Kerry. In some respects, then, part of the Asian box has been checked; it’s less necessary for Kerry to go to Asia now that Abe is in town. Also, Kerry himself, when he talked about the pivot to Asia in his confirmation hearings, one of the things we didn’t notice — as much as the discussion on Iran [before the Senate Armed Services Committee], for example — were his comments that seemed to be putting a bit of distance between himself and the administration about the need for a pivot, particularly on the military side. He even raised the issue of whether or not increasing military resources in Asia might lead to a backlash if China felt it was being encircled.

Finally, I would just say [on that point] that even if the administration is determined to rebalance toward Asia and put much of its strategic focus on that region, that doesn’t mean that’s a zero-sum game. I think the Europeans do need reassurance by the [US] government that it still does have an agenda with Europe, so it’s still perfectly reasonable, even if the rebalancing is going to take place, that you not forget the relationship with Europe altogether.

Finally, I have been struck [by the analysts' assessment] that President Obama and Secretary Kerry are very much on the same page when it comes to how they think about American foreign policy and America’s role in the world — but that’s not to say that they’re on exactly the same page. Secretary Kerry, when he was Senator Kerry, was in fact one of the cosponsors of a resolution for intervening militarily in Libya, which I don’t think the president was anxious to do. Then last year, in May, Kerry called for arming the Syrian rebels and even airstrikes and NATO participation in setting up safe zones, so there is a little bit of a distance [between Kerry's position then and the administration's position now]. Of course, in the confirmation hearings, Secretary Kerry made clear that he was much more interested in the agenda item of trying to remove Assad from power than in any kind of military option.

But that does leave the question about Secretary Kerry — I think he understands this is his last rodeo, and I think he does have ambitions to see himself as potentially having a significant tenure as secretary of state. It’ll be interesting to see how this squares with the White House’s own tendency to want to keep the domestic agenda on the front page as opposed to foreign policy issues. So there’s a little bit of prospective tension here, although I suspect they’re all very much on the same page when it comes to foreign policy in general. But secretaries of state like to have their names go down in history as having succeeded in various things, so it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out with a White House that is interested in tamping down foreign policy and not make it a priority.

Danielle Pletka:

Let’s turn a little bit to the Middle East. The new secretary of state is making what I think most people would see as a pretty traditional first visit to the region, and as usual, without any embarrassment about embracing the cliché, he described his visit to all of these countries in the Middle East, including Israel, as a “listening tour.” Honestly, I think that’s probably the wrong description. What will be happening is that the countries in the region are going to be looking for greater engagement on a variety of issues that are important to them.

Now here’s the big disconnect: the issues that are important in the region are the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the collapse in Syria, the rise of Turkey, and the nuclear weapons program of Iran. Unfortunately, Secretary Kerry has indicated, rather disingenuously, that he wants to talk about the Middle East peace process. No one, perhaps not even the Palestinians, but certainly no one else — setting aside the Israelis, about whom we can have the usual conversation — no one in the region is interested in this question. No one views it as the key to their national security over the coming years. No one has it front and center on their existential burdens. They’re all talking about what we’re going to do about Iran. They’re looking to the talks that are going to coming up, and they are desperately, desperately worried.

Now, let’s delve a little bit into the Washington gossip arena and talk about personnel and politics. It’s very interesting to hear the rumors that the empty Dennis Ross position — I can’t remember which made-up title they gave it: senior director for the central region — is going to be filled by the current assistant secretary of state for European affairs, whom I like a lot, and went to graduate school with, but who has no experience with the Middle East. So what message is the administration sending by promoting a person as part of the peace process who has absolutely no background with not only the peace process, but in general with the Middle East? The bottom line for most of the countries in this region is that they’re completely and totally confused. They don’t understand what it is that the Obama administration wants to achieve. They’re deeply concerned about the message that was sent during the Hagel hearing. What did they hear? Let’s forget about Hagel/Israel, Hagel/McCain, etc. Let’s talk about the message Hagel sent on Iran. He had no idea what the president’s policy was. There are only two explanations for that: one, he’s probably not too bright. That’s the explanation I believe is true. Though others can’t imagine that that’s the case. They think, in fact, that there’s massive confusion inside the administration about what our policy is. And they suspect that the United States is in fact completely prepared to embrace a policy of conceding to Iran, which we know puts every Arab country located around Iran on the defensive. That’s what Secretary Kerry is going to be hearing about.

Put that in the context of sequestration. For the first time in more than a decade, we don’t have a carrier battleship in the region, and what we see throughout the gulf countries and other countries which have traditionally relied on the United States is quiet but urgent hysteria. That’s what I think will be greeting Kerry, and they’re going to be listening for answers. But, unfortunately, I don’t think they’re going to be getting many.

Question and Answer Session:

Question One:

Mr. Schmitt, you mentioned in your presentation that the Europeans need reassuring, especially given the Obama administration’s talk about the pivot to Asia. What kind of steps do you think Kerry will be able to take, given how tightly the Obama administration has controlled foreign policy from the White House? What kind of steps do you think he can take to reassure our allies in Europe?

Gary Schmitt:

Well, I think there’s a limit on what Kerry can do. Despite the fact that the Europeans themselves are drawing down their defense budgets, there was a lot of concern about the announcement in Europe that the US was going to remove two Army BCT’s [Brigade Combat Teams] and an Air Wing out of Italy. So that’s disconcerting, not only to the Europeans Kerry is going to see, but it’s particularly disconcerting to the relatively new members of NATO in Central and Eastern Europe. Now, there’s not much he can do on that front, I think, other than reassure them that maybe we will be trying to do more training with Europeans as we draw down in Afghanistan. But again, as Dany was suggesting, given the budget constraints that we are under, the first thing that goes is these large training exercises. I think Kerry’s going to have a hard time reassuring the Europeans on the security front.

I think the one thing that he’ll be pushing quite a lot — and I think the Europeans will be interested in — is the Free Trade Agreement. President Obama made a big pitch at the State of the Union about it, and I know from European capitals that they are pretty interested in the trade agreement. But with these types of trade agreements, unless they’re done pretty quickly, they stall. So Kerry will have to reassure them that the administration is quite serious about the agreement. I think within the Obama administration, they’re committed to the agreement, but there are voices inside the Democratic base that have their doubts about the agreement altogether. [In short,] Kerry’s got a hard road ahead when it comes to convincing Europeans that there’s some sort of new agenda for the administration in Europe.

Question Two:

You mentioned that on the agenda in Europe, there are a lot of issues that have nothing to do with Europe or are not in Europe. Syria is obviously one that’s on this agenda when Kerry is in Rome — it’s a multilateral discussion as well as a meeting with the Syrian opposition. I’m wondering if you can lay out what you think are the possibilities there in terms of making any progress. Or is this just sort of checking a box? I mean, obviously the US has a relationship with the Syrian opposition. What are you expecting out of that leg of the trip?

Danielle Pletka:

I think that the biggest problem for the administration on the question of Syria is that having left it so long, there are no good answers. And the Europeans gave us some cover some months ago when Hollande announced that they were recognizing the Syrian opposition as a legitimate government. The British then followed suit, but the United States did not at that time. Then there was a big push for us to take a more proactive role. The problem is now that the opposition is so fragmented, al Qaeda has such a good foothold in Syria, the Iranians have dug such good lines to maintain power, if we now begin to do some different element aggressively, we run the risk of not helping the people we want to help (accepting the notion that we want to help anybody). And so, you have to ask the question: does Kerry want to achieve something at this late date, or is this just a CYA operation, so that when Syria becomes a nightmare that radiates out from Damascus and begins to affect Lebanon and Jordan and Iraq and Israel and Turkey, the Obama administration can say that they did their upmost to contain it, but they simply weren’t able to do it. I don’t know what the answer is to that question.

I always see that in the context of Kerry’s own very forward-leaning attitude about Assad. On the one hand, you can assume that he’d be resentful toward Assad for having made a fool out of him, and on the other hand, I suspect that he’s actually willing to talk Assad into a deal. And then, of course, we have the question of what that deal is going to be, and that won’t be pretty either. There are just no good options for anyone involved.

Gary Schmitt:

I’d just like to add one point, which is that some of the real discussions about Syria will take place with Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, when he meets Kerry in Berlin. As Dany was suggesting, I think the Russians are interested in talking to Kerry about how to move Assad out [of power], but only on their own terms. So the kind of deal that would actually lead to Assad leaving is probably not one that anyone is interested in. The second thing is that, even if Assad does leave, we’re in a situation now where it’s not clear that it would make a decisive difference on the ground. We’re in a situation where you’re left with no options or the option you have is really quite daunting: that is, a lot more direct interference in Syria, and probable military action by European countries and the US. And as far as we can tell, no one wants that.

Question Three:

Regarding Danielle’s comments that Kerry is most interested in talking about the Middle East peace process, I wanted to draw you out a little bit more about that. Obviously, Israel. Jerusalem is not on the trip — he’s not going there. And if you listen to Secretary Kerry and to the State Department, Iran, Syria, and the other issues you’ve mentioned have been talked about quite a bit — that’s the focus of the trip. So, I’m curious about what makes you think he’s most concerned about jumpstarting the peace process?

Danielle Pletka:

At the beginning, when Kerry was appointed, there was a lot of emphasis on the peace process. Again, if you look at the administration as a whole, go back to the State of the Union. How many times was Iran mentioned? Once. There’s been a refocusing on Iran a little bit by virtue of the Hagel hearing, and the need to sort of put out a strong position in order to bolster the mistakes that were made there, but there was a widespread belief that there would be a new emphasis on the peace process at the beginning of the second term, and those were the things that Kerry emphasized first when he started talking about his own stewardship of state. So, again, it didn’t come up at his speech at UVA — it’s been much more quiet — but when the trip was first talked about, most people believed it was going to be mostly about the peace process. If you remember, in fact, weirdly, the Israeli’s put out kind of a preemptive “what this visit is about” presser, in which they said “no, no, no, we’re talking about Iran.” And then the administration put out a warning saying, “We’re not bringing any new proposals on the peace process.” Now why did they feel the need to do that? It’s because everybody had thought that’s what this was going to be about, and it was exactly the one thing that nobody other than the Palestinians wanted to talk about. So that’s the only reason. It’s all about tea-leaf reading right now — that’s what everyone’s doing right now. You know, I hate to say it, but we have our own version of Kremlinology in Washington. You know, we look at the people who are getting appointments, we look at who’s going where, we look at who’s saying what, and you know, the truth is, if Hagel hadn’t screwed up so royally, we wouldn’t be talking about Iran right now.

Question Four:

Gary, what does it say that John Kerry is not going to Brussels during his European trip?

Gary Schmitt:

I was actually going to make that point, which is that he’s going to capitals that are traditional Western European capitals, and he’s actually not going to Brussels. I think that’s interesting. One could [make the excuse], you know, that he’s only got so much time, so he can’t go everywhere. But I think the real reason he’s going to Berlin [is that it is] where key European Union decisions and policies these days [are being made]. So, indirectly, he’s going to Brussels, but recognizing that Berlin is now playing the major role in how the eurocrisis is addressed. And given the trip’s limited days, I think it’s the case that Secretary Kerry is going where the action is.

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