John Kerry in the Middle East: Eclipse of a Superpower?

James Kitfield
National Journal

Doha, Qatar – Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in the Middle East today with two of the most vexing problems in international affairs at the top of his agenda: a downward spiraling Syrian civil war that continues to draw neighbors into to its bloody vortex and destabilize the entire region; and the slow-rolling death of the two-state solution to an Israeli-Palestinian conflict that remains an open wound in Western-Arab relations.

The very fact that Kerry has spent so much energy early in his tenure on those thankless and intractable crises indicates that he understands the stakes involved. Whether out of indifference or impotence, Washington's inability to manage, let alone resolve those twin crises is seen as conclusive proof that U.S. power and influence are rapidly waning in a region where it was dominant for decades.

Indeed, it would be difficult to overstate how widely the narrative of declining United States leadership and relevance has taken hold here in the Middle East. Partly that is the inevitable result of the U.S. pulling troops out of a still unstable Iraq, publicly announcing a strategic "pivot" to Asia, and looking inward to "nation building at home" after two wars and a Great Recession. U.S. inability to mount a Marshall Plan to help post-Arab Spring countries make the difficult transition to democracy advanced the narrative of a former superpower in decline.

And yet it was the Obama administration's apparent abandonment of a Middle East peace process that has been in paralysis for years, followed by its ineffectual response to a Syrian civil war that has claimed the lives of over 80,000 people, that truly cemented the impression. In a conference of regional leaders and senior officials this week at the Doha Forum in Qatar, for instance, even close allies described a United States in eclipse.

"We're now seeing the beginning of the end of America as the great, regulating power in the Middle East," said Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, Britain's former special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (2009-2010), speaking at the Doha Forum in Qatar this week. After two unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, the United States has lost the will to act even when it knows what must be done. "We all know what needs to be done to reach an equitable peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and to help the wretched people of Syria, but I question whether the will to do it exists, particularly in Washington, D.C.," he said. "Unless the White House decides to take more assertive action, I fear you people in the Middle East are in for a long, dark winter with many dangers ahead."

Kerry's visit will begin in Amman, Jordan, where he will meet with international partners and try to rally support for a U.S.-Russian peace initiative. Middle Eastern and Western officials at the Doha Forum were nearly unanimous in their support for the initiative calling for talks between Syrian rebels and the regime of Bashar al-Ashad next month in Geneva, just as they were united in low expectations of a diplomatic breakthrough.

"We all hope the proposed U.S.-Russian conference on Syria will actually be convened and lead us forward, but given the huge obstacles it's difficult to have much hope in it," said Wolfgang Ischinger, the former German ambassador to the United States and chairman of the Munich Security Conference, speaking in Doha. Simply repeating the slogan 'Assad Must Go' is not a substitute for action, he noted, and absent further action Syria is likely to end in the worst of all outcomes: hundreds of thousands killed and wounded, a failed state that radiates regional instability, and loose weapons of mass destruction.

"I was the chief German negotiator during the 1990s when we confronted a very similar tragedy in Bosnia, and as a consequence of our hand-wringing and inaction the conflict only got worse," said Ischinger, recalling a crisis that was resolved only when the United States decided to lead collective action by the NATO alliance. "This time Syria is falling apart in front of our eyes, ripped open by hatred and violence of the most appalling type. And once again we're learning that doing nothing does not absolve any of us from responsibility. Doing nothing carries its own responsibility and guilt."

After Jordan, Kerry will travel to Israel and the West Bank as part of an ongoing U.S. effort to restart peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians that have been stalled for years. Once again expectations of a major diplomatic breakthrough are low, but Kerry is widely credited in the region for understanding that the situation is urgent. Continued Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem, coupled with Palestinian disunity and growing despair that a two-decade old "peace process" has yielded only process and very little lasting peace – all are conspiring to close the window on the two-state solution.

In a recent public letter signed by the "Eminent Persons Group," a score of former heads of state and top European officials, raised the alarm on the urgency of Kerry's mission to restart meaningful talks. "We are writing to express our concern about the dying chances of a settlement based on two sovereign states of Israel and Palestine," the group wrote, warning that Western policy inaction was actually entrenching Israel's occupation of the West Bank. President Obama made a similar point in his March 2013 visit to the region, the group noted, "but he gave no indication of action to break the deep stagnation."

Ironically, one of the signatories to the letter calling for more decisive U.S. and European leadership on the Israel-Palestinian peace process was former French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine. In the late 1990s Vedrine coined the term "hyperpower" to describe dominant U.S. power that the French felt was too often unchecked and wielded unilaterally. At the Doha conference, Vedrine joined a chorus of former officials and leaders warning that the decline of U.S. influence and power in the Middle East could become provocative.

"I did use to talk about American hyper-power, but these are different times and U.S. power and influence are clearly in relative decline," said Vedrine. Largely as a result, he said, Europeans are feeling abandoned by the U.S. "pivot" to Asia: Tokyo is wondering whether the U.S. security umbrella still protects Japan from China: and in the Middle East allies are alarmed that the vacuum created by declining U.S. power is being filled by chaos and disorder. "Whether your viewpoint is European, Asian or Middle Eastern, we all recognize the need for continued U.S. engagement and involvement in the international arena," said Vedrine. "While the international system goes through this period of transition and upheaval, we need a United States that continues to try and solve common problems in partnership with other countries. There is no other superpower able to play that role."