3 Questions We Would Like to Ask John Kerry

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John Kerry has worn many hats in Washington: senator, presidential hopeful, and secretary of state.

Earlier in the year, as President Barack Obama’s second-term Secretary of State, Kerry’s name was even whispered as a possible 2016 presidential candidate. While he unequivocally denied any intention to seek the nation’s highest office, the mere fact that his name was included as possible contender is proof that he is perhaps receiving the most widespread admiration of his political career.

Even though the president’s desire to scale back the global footprint of the nation has largely informed the State Department’s agenda, Kerry’s career is light years ahead of where it was in the 2004 election, propelled by his role in United States foreign policy. He has now served in both the Senate and in the president’s cabinet, giving him experience as a master politician, a lawmaker, and a negotiator.

The most telling difference between John Kerry, the 2004 presidential candidate, and John Kerry, the secretary of state, is philosophical. Political analysts attributed his loss to George W. Bush to a lack of vision. “President Bush put forward a powerful and compelling philosophy of what the government should do at home and abroad: Expand liberty,” wrote Slate’s Chris Suellentrop the day after the election. “John Kerry, on the other hand, campaigned as a technocrat, a man who would be better at “managing” the war and the economy. But for voters faced with a mediocre economy rather than a miserable one, and with a difficult war that’s hopefully not a disastrous one, that message — packaged as “change” — wasn’t compelling enough to persuade them to vote for Kerry.”

But now Kerry has been able to show the electorate that he too has a vision for a better world. As David Rohde wrote in a piece for the Atlantic titled, “How John Kerry Could End Up Outdoing Hillary Clinton,” now, “it’s looking more and more possible that when the history of early 21st century diplomacy gets written, it will be Kerry who is credited with making the State Department relevant again.” If Kerry is indeed “making the State Department relevant again” after nearly 18 months on the job, especially amidst the huge foreign policy challenges facing the United States, there are a few questions that the politician could answer that would shed light on how U.S. foreign policy unfolds.

1. Are there any limits to presidential war powers in the “war on terror?”

Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who the U.S. government alleged was involved in planning operations for the Islamist militant organization al-Qaeda, was killed by drones in Yemen in 2011. The targeted killing of an American citizens is “extremely rare, if not unprecedented,” as The New York Times noted just after Obama added the Muslim cleric to a list of individuals the Central Intelligence Agency was authorized to kill, and the incident spawned widespread outrage.

In the following years, it was argued that the Obama administration had violated the rights of al-Awlaki to a fair trial, although the Constitution does not require a trial for enemy combatants — not even Americans. The president’s libertarian critics also contend that Obama is abusing executive power just like his predecessor, George W. Bush. But an inspection of U.S. law shows there is a legal basis for such actions. Updating the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act — which gave the president war powers against al-Qaeda — includes the ability to kill, capture, detain, interrogate, and engage in surveillance. Those powers have been confirmed by Congress, approved by U.S. courts, and are regulated. “In short, when it comes to drone killings, Obama has broken no law,” noted Slate’s Eric Posner in a May 2013 piece analyzing presidential ruthlessness.

A previously secret Justice Department memorandum from 2010, released by a United States Court of Appeals at the end of June, described the legal justification for the Obama administration’s drone strikes — a memorandum critics have long wanted to see. In the redacted version of the memo, Justice Department official David Barron argued that the killing of U.S. citizens without due process of law should be allowed, even though no precedent exists and there is no explicit authorization in the Constitution or in federal statutes.

While this information is valuable, it has not put the issue to rest. Since target drone strikes have been made the cornerstone of the president’s counterterrorism policy, the Obama administration’s plans and the ramifications of such a strategy is still an important topic of discussion for U.S. lawmakers and civil rights advocates. A June 2014 report authored by the Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy — a bipartisan panel of former defense and intelligence officials — found that the targeted strikes are as a “slippery slope” toward a state of never-ending war. That prediction reads as even more worrisome when considering the fact that the administration has not conducted any “strategic analysis” on the cost-benefit of continuing drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan. “A serious counterterrorism strategy needs to consider carefully, and constantly reassess the balance between kinetic action and other counterterrorism tools, and the potential unintended consequences of increased reliance on lethal UAV’s,” the report read, using the acronym for unmanned aerial vehicles.

The question for Kerry is why the Obama administration has not considered the cost-benefit relationship of the targeted strikes. The secretary of state’s opinion on the possibility for endless war is also necessary.

2. Can the U.S. really help solve the Israel-Palestine conflict?

Over the course of the past few weeks, tensions between Israel and Palestine once again erupted into violence. On Monday night alone, somewhere between 5 and 16 people were killed in Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip — a region of the UN-recognized Palestinian state controlled by Hamas. The Israeli cabinet has authorized the country’s army to mobilize 40,000 troops, according to reports from Haaretz Israeli News Source, while Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said: “We are preparing for a battle against Hamas which will not end within a few days.” Reuters reported that a source in the office of Benjamin Netanyahu quoted the prime minister as saying “The IDF [Israel Defense Forces] must be ready to go all the way. All options are on the table, including a ground invasion.”

The current wave of violence began with the killing of four young boys; first, three Israelis were kidnapped and killed in the West Bank, prompting the revenge killing of a Palestine teen. Those murders ignited crisis, and in the past three weeks hostilities have increased. Now, with explosions shaking Gaza and rockets penetrating Israel, the two sides are close to full-blown war for the first time since an eight-day war in 2012.

Kerry predicted in April that Israel would become an apartheid state if the Israelis and the Palestinians fail to agree upon a two-state solution to end the decades-long conflict — a comment that spawned widespread criticism, forcing Kerry to apologize and clarify his opinion. But while his use of the word apartheid to describe a possible future for Israel drew a critical response, members of the country’s own government have used the word as well. “As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel, it is going to be either non-Jewish or non-democratic,” former Prime Minister Ehud Barak said in 2010 when he was the country’s minister of defense. “If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”

No matter the word used, his worry is valid. U.S. officials may typically avoid using the word apartheid to describe Israel, but with peace seemingly always just out of reach — and the fault in the hands of both sides, at least according to Kerry’s assessment — it appears violence will only keep increasing. “A two-state solution will be clearly underscored as the only real alternative. Because a unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second-class citizens – or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state,” the secretary of state said a closed-door meeting in Washington D.C.

Those comments came as it became increasingly apparent that his latest round of peace talks would come to naught. Kerry’s goal was not to create a binding final resolution, but to craft a framework document that would lay out “a future point of departure,” as a June 2014 Haarretz article explained, for a peace plan. “The cynicism that accompanied the talks, the lack of enthusiasm for yet another round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and, at the end of the allotted nine months [given by Washington to the negotiations], the resounding collapse of the process — whose consequences the parties are now feeling — led to the notion that, once again, the talks had not been serious,” noted the English-language Israeli news organization. “It was alleged that it had all been for nothing, that not a thing had happened, that the parties had just played for time and the chance to hurl mutual recriminations.”

It is true that the two sides disagreed over a number of specific details of the agreement framework — like how long Israeli troops would be allowed to stay in the Jordan valley. But these issues were not the reason the talks broke down. Rather, the problem was a mutual distrust of America’s commitment to the negotiations, as the Haarretz article suggests.     Furthermore, in the eyes of foreign nations, all the administration’s policies regarding the Middle East indicate the country wants to extract itself from the region; the U.S. has withdrawn from Iraq, started preparations to pull out of Afghanistan, and refused to become involved in the Syrian conflict, which Obama called “somebody else’s civil war.”

The question for Kerry — given the region’s distrust of America’s commitment to peace negotiations — is whether there is any reasonable resolution the American public can expect for the conflict between Israel and Palestine during the administration of Barack Obama.

3. Did the U.S. pullout of Iraq too soon?

Back in early 2012 — when the growing Sunni insurgent violence was more a nagging concern than a pressing problem as it is now with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) winning away more and more territory from the Iraqi government — General Michael V. Hayden, who was appointed CIA director by President Bush in 2006 and served until February 2009, wrote in piece for CNN that the United States had pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq too soon. Sure, the American public was growing ever more discouraged that the country could achieve its goal of building a democratic and stable Iraq, but Hayden argued that, “Whatever the withdrawal means in purely physical terms in Iraq, the psychic impact there and in the region is that America is less interested.” Further, “in Iraq, that means that each of the factions are going to their sectarian corners and are preparing to come out fighting,” he wrote.

Hawks in the United States are now arguing that President Obama built the foundation for the current crisis by withdrawing all U.S. troops, a move that disrupted the stability achieved by the surge President Bush ordered. Their argument might not be entirely correct; at the end of 2011, the Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was neither stable nor safe. Despite that reality, the withdrawal was a moment of triumph for the Obama administration; it was a campaign promise delivered, and the end of eight years of a deeply unpopular war.

While the relief expressed by the American public upon the exit from Iraq does not ring as loudly now that violence is increasing, not all political analysts agree that the withdrawal came too soon. Jason Brownlee, an associate professor of government and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote for The Washington Post in June that keeping soldiers in Iraq longer would not have “halted the political hemorrhaging.” In his opinion, “the most the United States has accomplished through military interventions in the developing world is to replace or reinforce local leaders, typically in missions that lasted a year or less. By contrast, longer troop commitments and more ambitious schemes of political engineering have tended to end badly.” But his critics would argue the general idea is that the withdrawal of U.S. troops left a power vacuum that was filed by America’s enemies.

Now, the president has sent 750 U.S. troops back in Iraq, and the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair General Martin Dempsey believes the Iraqi government forces will “probably not” be able to recapture territory lost to ISIL forces without aid. Both the growing number of military personnel in the country and Dempsey’s assessment of the Iraqi government’s problems prove that the United States is still deeply involved with the country’s affairs, regardless of whether Obama’s decision to pull out troops in 2011 was right or wrong.

Some critics of Obama’s foreign policy might argue that the return of U.S. troops proves the military should not have left in 2011. Even many who believe the whole operation was flawed from the beginning contend that the United States should have stayed to maintain political security. In 2004, as a presidential hopeful, Kerry warned against withdrawing U.S. troops; but in 2011 the senator, who was serving as the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the president was “following through on his commitment to end both the conflict in Iraq and our military presence.”

While there is no reason to simply attribute the change in his opinion to a change in the political tide, Kerry does not appear to be regretting that comment. Even though he said in late June that the threat from militants entering Iraq from Syria could force the U.S. to take military action, he later amended that statement, telling CBS News that the U.S. military would provided assistance but launching air strikes would constitute “a complete and total act of responsibility,” for now.

Still, the question remains: what will the United States do? For now, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said that none of the troops who had arrived in Iraq will “perform combat missions.” The government has thus far refused to launch drone strikes to support the Iraqi military. The question for Kerry is whether it was a mistake for the United States to leave Iraq. While there is no going back, his assessment of the withdrawal could shed light on his future decisions.

Bonus: What is the deal with Obama’s foreign policy?

Several months ago, Obama used baseball as a metaphor for his foreign policy strategy. During a visit to Asia, when U.S. allies were questioning why the nation had not gone to the rescue of Syria, Obama claimed in a speech that his administration has focused on not rushing to judgement, and thereby “avoiding errors.” That thinking will keep U.S. troops “in reserve for when we absolutely need them,” he said, and critics who argue the United States is not using enough force “haven’t learned the lesson of the last decade,” during which the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan took a toll on U.S. forces and its budget.

That may not always be sexy,” Obama said of his administration’s focus on engagement and unity among allies. “That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows. But it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”

Of course, as sitting Secretary of State, John Kerry would more likely than not give a diplomatic answer to this questions. However, if the politician pens his own memoir, like Hillary Clinton, a more telling assessment could be given.

Here is what he said about the president’s foreign policy during his Secretary of State nomination hearing:

“It is also imperative that in implementing President Obama’s vision for the world as he ends more than a decade of war, we join together to augment our message to the world. President Obama and every one of us here knows that American foreign policy is not defined by drones and deployments alone. We cannot allow the extraordinary good we do to save and change lives to be eclipsed entirely by the role we have had to play since September 11th, a role that was thrust upon us.”

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