Secretary of State John Kerry is a man on a mission. He has assigned himself the task of bringing the Israelis and Palestinians to a peace deal, and has devoted his time accordingly. Since taking the reins at State a year ago, he has visited the region 10 times, hoping that his personal diplomacy can nudge the parties closer together.
His efforts are laudable. To increase the security of Israel and ensure the well-being and dignity of the Palestinian people are tremendously worthy goals. If they could be accomplished, it would be a significant achievement. But the truth of the matter is that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal would not significantly alter the broader, more complex forces at work in the Middle East, or impact the challenges America faces in other parts of the world.
In the 12-plus years since 9/11, the landscape of the Middle East has changed dramatically. The balance of power in the Middle East is at stake, with Saudi Arabia and Iran vying for primacy. Radical Sunnis and Shiites are engaged in a war with battlefields strewn across Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. The so-called Arab Spring, which was largely a public cry for economic opportunity, has resulted in the downfall of governments without suitable replacements. Libya is awash with militias, and there is a crisis of governance in Egypt.
Lebanon’s complicated web of political and military ties has become even more so. Turkey, a nation that not too long ago had been looked at by Gulf states to fill the vacuum, is showing signs of incapacity, corruption, and support for the Muslim Brotherhood. And all the while Al Qaeda remains a threat to Western interests. With these forces at work, the plight of the Palestinian people is no longer a bellwether for peace in the region.
US actions add to the confusion
US actions also are adding to the maze of challenges. The Obama administration’s willingness to engage Iran on a nuclear accord has disturbed traditional allies that have relied on mutual distrust of Iran as a tenet of their relationship with the United States. The administration’s reluctant, confused, and niche approaches toward conflicts in Libya and Syria, and now Iraq, have left governments questioning Washington’s basic competence. If nothing else, America’s seemingly opportunistic approaches leave some to believe that the US doesn’t have a long view for the region. That should be disturbing to Americans and is downright frightening for our allies.
So while Secretary Kerry’s focus on the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is not wrong, the current landscape in the Middle East suggests that, today, it may be more of a hobbyhorse than a fix to what is broken in the region. It also presents lost opportunities for other US interests that are getting short shrift.
Pivot to Asia – and Africa
In his first term, President Obama adopted a policy of “rebalancing” toward Asia. By that, he meant to highlight the greater importance of the region in US foreign policy and national security calculus. Apart from rhetoric, that shift largely has not happened, and the US continues to play diplomatic catch-up with China. Asia would benefit from increased high-level and determined US diplomacy.
The region isn’t alone. Africa also could use more attention. Violence and chaos rack multiple countries. Delicate peace talks over the future of the world’s newest country, South Sudan, will continue following a cease-fire agreement between the government and opposition forces. And Al Qaeda franchises are springing up in Africa and across the Sahel. At the same time, Africa is home to some of the fastest growing economies in the world, offering investment and trade opportunities that are already being pursued by China and others.
US interests on the African continent are only likely to grow, and increased attention from America’s top diplomat, Kerry, could pave the way for greater partnerships with the world’s second largest and second most populous continent.
What about the long view?
US foreign policy and the work of the secretary of State should reflect the nation’s strategic goals and pressing interests. Unfortunately, Kerry’s calendar doesn’t seem to line up.
He has put forward a plan for consideration by Israel and the Palestinians. It might be wise to let that sit with the parties for now, allowing their own determination for a deal to ripen. His time would be better spent thinking about how to address the region’s new dynamics and consider the long view for the US in the Middle East, not to mention Africa and Asia.
As negotiations with Iran move forward, it will be important to maintain communication with Israel and to assure moderate Arab nations of US intentions. For certain Gulf states, assurances backed by increased latitude in export controls and military equipment would be beneficial.
But most important, Kerry should make time for other regions where US interests – and concerns – could be greater.
Kara L. Bue is a partner at Armitage International L.C. She served as deputy assistant secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs from 2003 to 2005 and as a member of the Romney for President National Security Directorate in 2012.