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New State Secretary Faces New and Old Challenges in the Middle East, Afghanistan

March 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
What does Secretary of State John Kerry's schedule say about the current U.S. foreign policy priorities? How does the current secretary compare to his predecessor? Gwen Ifill talks with Michele Dunne of the Atlantic Council and Susan Glasser of Foreign Policy about the war in Afghanistan and challenges of responding to Syria.
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GWEN IFILL: For more on the challenges ahead for Secretary of State Kerry, I’m joined by Michele Dunne, formerly with the National Security Council and State Department. She now heads the Middle East Program at the Atlantic Council. And Susan Glasser, executive editor of Foreign Policy magazine.

Michele Dunne, it seems, as John Kerry hopscotches around the region, all he is encountering are rocks and hard places. Am I right?

MICHELE DUNNE, Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East: Yes, you are right about that.

I mean, this is a region I think that actually has been crying out for a bit more U.S. engagement, but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easy. Secretary clearly shows – Sec. Kerry clearly shows he’s ready to be engaged, but, you know, he’s walking into a situation in Iraq where the United States has already withdrawn its troops, in Afghanistan, where we’re in the process, and that means we have diminishing influence in both of those places.

We still have interests there, but diminishing influence. Syria, a very, very hot conflict, the United States has been reluctant to get more involved. And then — and Iran, of course, difficult negotiations, with, you know, not necessarily any sign of progress. And then on top of all of that, Sec. Kerry has shown that he wants to take on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and see if he can make progress where others have not.

GWEN IFILL: What does his schedule, his first big trip as secretary of state, what does it tell us about his priorities?

SUSAN GLASSER, Foreign Policy: Well, it certainly doesn’t look like we’re pivoting to Asia, does it?

GWEN IFILL: No, which is what Hillary Clinton was doing.

SUSAN GLASSER: Well, that’s right, and Barack Obama. That was the administration’s stated goal.

The real answer, right, is that the Middle East — regardless of whether the United States achieves energy independence any time soon, the Middle East is a geopolitical center that is just not easy to pivot away from. And I think that daunting list of challenges that you just ran over suggests why that is.

I also think if you look at what Senator-turned-Sec. Kerry’s agenda is, you get the sense of this is still very much a political figure. He spent 29 years in the Senate, which prizes a kind of face-to-face diplomacy, if you will, the handshake, the look them in the eye. And that was a mission that then Senator Kerry, he often undertook even for Barack Obama when he was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

He went to Afghanistan. He met with Karzai. I think this is a somewhat familiar role for him. And it’s very different, by the way, than the way that Hillary Clinton used her time and credibility in the job.

GWEN IFILL: And, yet, Michele Dunne, whether it’s Syria or what we just saw in Afghanistan or whether it’s worrying about the red lines with Iran or the Middle East peace process, it always comes down to whether the U.S. has the leverage to do what it wants, to get what it wants done in this area. Does it?

MICHELE DUNNE: Well, as I mentioned, I think, with Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s going to be increasingly difficult. As the United States, you know, pulls its troops out, you know, undoubtedly our leverage is waning.

In some of these other areas, in Syria, you know, I think the United States could have more leverage over what’s happening there, but it has to be willing to invest more and to take risks to get more deeply involved. There’s a very messy situation in Egypt now with a developing economic and security crisis that may bring down the political transition.

I think the United States could exert more influence there, but we have to decide that we want to do it.

GWEN IFILL: Is John Kerry the type of secretary of state, from what we know so far from his history in the Senate, who would actually push the White House to be more actively engaged in places like Syria?

SUSAN GLASSER: Well, I think that’s exactly the question right now.

I was thinking listening to Michele that really the challenge for Sec. Kerry is not only diplomacy with the likes of President Karzai, but, you know, some real delicate diplomacy back here in Washington, where by all accounts it is President Obama personally who has been the most resistant to increasing the U.S. commitment to aiding the rebels in Syria in any way, for a variety of reasons. This is a very complicated conflict, obviously.

But, you know, from what — the sense that I have, Sec. Kerry is staking some of his new credibility in the job and saying we have to offer something more. We have got to change our strategy and present something that changes the calculus on the ground in Syria or we’re not going to break through this stalemate.

GWEN IFILL: The quicksand, always, for secretaries of states or presidents for decades now has been the Arab-Israeli peace process. Did we detect any shifting toward more engagement on the part of the U.S. in that process, or is that yet another thankless task waiting for the secretary?

MICHELE DUNNE: President Obama just made this important trip to Israel, I think a very necessary trip, and so he’s now established a much better relationship with the Israeli people and some ability to exert influence there.

So that prepares the ground a bit. But the actual conflict itself I think is no more ripe for diplomacy right now than it has been for a long time. But Sec. Kerry seems determined that he wants to try. The question is, you know, will President Obama really back him? Because we know that in the end, this is the kind of a conflict where you need the White House involved. It very quickly becomes a domestic political issue.

GWEN IFILL: It does become a question, because this State Department at least for the last four years has been famously run — or at least the foreign policy has been famously run out of the White House. Do you detect any shift in that?

SUSAN GLASSER: Well, not really.

And, by the way, many presidents by the time their second term comes around, their thoughts turn to, can I achieve Middle East peace and something lasting legacy I can put on the board, if you will.

GWEN IFILL: Exactly.

SUSAN GLASSER: But, at this point I think, you know, President Obama has gotten a lot of points for the eloquence and the cleverness with which he offered this speech over the head in some ways over region’s stalemated political leadership.

But he hasn’t really outlined a very new in terms of negotiating points platform that suggests we can pick up new diplomacy. And, frankly, we have been talking about such a daunting list of challenges for Kerry to work on, it’s hard to imagine that he’s going to be bashing his head against a brick wall, if that’s what is still the case when it comes to the actual peace process.

GWEN IFILL: Finally, he’s very different, or is he very different from Hillary Clinton, from what we have seen, for the last four years? Is it style? Is it substance? Is it geography, the Middle East instead of the East?

MICHELE DUNNE: I think he is going to be different from Sec. Clinton in the sense that, you know, people see this as probably his ultimate achievement as being secretary of state, that he’s not necessarily looking forward to a further political career.

And he’s really focused on the next few years and trying to achieve something. I think he has a lot of confidence in himself, after all those years heading the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But one last point, though, is to remember that whatever agenda he might set, U.S. foreign policy is usually largely reactive. And particularly in the Middle East, things will happen. And the region will probably change whatever priorities Sec. Kerry tries to set for himself.

GWEN IFILL: Susan?

SUSAN GLASSER: Well, you know, it’s hard to see any real substantive differences if you listen to Clinton and Kerry talk at the 30,000-foot altitude.

Stylistically, however, I think there really is. And I think clearly Kerry is a believer in that face-to-face, one-on-one backroom diplomacy with power players. I’m going to go see the men who count in the world. And Hillary Clinton, she used and harnessed that — that enormous global celebrity of hers, and she played a very sort of inside-outside game, if you will. She was always using public diplomacy and speaking directly in the same way that actually Barack Obama was on this trip to Israel. So, I think that’s a major difference already that you’re going to see.

GWEN IFILL: Susan Glasser, Michele Dunne, I know you will be watching very closely. Thank you both very much.

MICHELE DUNNE: Thank you.

SUSAN GLASSER: Thanks, Gwen.