If admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery, America needs to stand up and say, “My name is the United States, and I am addicted to the Middle East.”
Even as John Kerry makes his first trip to the Asia-Pacific as secretary of state this weekend, he has already visited the Middle East on three separate occasions. These visits have been dominated by the ongoing violence in Syria as well as the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Now Josh Rogin is reporting over at The Cable that Kerry’s recent voyages in the Middle East is part of a long-term, personal shuttle diplomacy campaign to break the impasse of the Israel-Palestine conflict. As Rogin reports, officials in the State Department, “are taking a long view and are planning several more visits by Kerry to the region — the kind of shuttle diplomacy that was taken on by special envoys in past situations.”
Although in recent years presidents have appointed special envoys to conduct this shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East, the most famous instance of it was Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy in the region following the 1973 Yom Kippur war between Israel, Syria, and Egypt. Indeed, according to some scholars, “Between November 1973 and September 1975, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made 11 trips to the Middle East.”
During these trips Kissinger laid the groundwork for an eventual peace treaty between Egypt and Israel which would be signed under the Carter administration. More importantly, through this diplomacy Kissinger solidified the United States’ predominance in the Middle East region, cleverly cutting the Soviet Union out of the equation on many issues.
There are several important distinctions between Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy then and John Kerry’s now. First, before Kissinger dedicated his tenure as Secretary of State to this issue, he knew that the parties involved were interested in making a deal. Indeed, Kissinger quietly met with Egyptian officials two times in 1973 before the Yom Kippur War took place. He came away from these meetings convinced that the Egyptians were determined to align with the United States after having broken with the Soviets earlier. Getting an Arab leader to make peace with Israel would be unprecedented, but there was reason to believe that this was an opportune moment.
None of this can be said about the Israelis and Palestinians today. Israel remains utterly fixated on Iran’s nuclear program and rightly concerned about the unrest around them that has come about as a result of the Arab Spring. They have given absolutely no indication that they are at all interested in seriously pursuing a two state solution at this time. Furthermore, Benjamin Netanyahu has never been known for his eagerness to cut a deal with the Palestinians, and some of his new governing coalition is even more right-wing than he is.
The Palestinians have less of an incentive to make peace with Israel at this time. The Arab Spring has utterly reordered the regional environment in which Hamas operates and it is still repositioning itself according. It has every reason to wait and see if enduring relationships with Turkey, Egypt, and Qatar will take hold and give it greater leverage against Israel.
The United States cannot alter these realities no matter who it sends to the region. Fortunately, current times differ from back when Kissinger was secretary of state in that the U.S. has less of an interest in the region.
When Kissinger undertook his shuttle diplomacy the U.S. was facing a number of setbacks around the world in places like Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Making the U.S. kingmaker in the Middle East was a huge diplomatic coup in the context of this period in the Cold War. Furthermore, as the oil embargo during the Yom Kippur War made clear, America’s dependency on Middle Eastern oil made it imperative that Washington get more involved in the Persian Gulf. This rationale would be codified in American foreign policy soon after Kissinger left government by President Carter.
The U.S. is again at an inflection point with regards to the Middle East. However, this time instead of the larger factors of the day urging greater U.S. involvement in the Middle East, they are suggesting the opposite. The underlying reason that President Carter declared that the Middle East was a vital region for the U.S. was the strategic interest it had in maintaining access to Persian Gulf oil. Before then the region held lesser importance for the United States as evidenced by George Kennan not including it in his plan to contain the Soviet Union.
As the U.S. moves to energy self-sufficiency, the place of the Middle East in American foreign policy needs to be recalibrated accordingly. To be sure, the U.S. continues to have an economic interest in Persian Gulf oil, given its continued importance to the economies of Asia and Europe. Additionally, as a global superpower, the U.S. has some interests in all the regions of the world.
Nevertheless, it is imperative to wonder why the current U.S. secretary of state is apparently planning to make such a heavy investment in the Levant. Given the changing dynamics of the international system, it is imperative that Kerry visits East Asia at least three times for every one trip he makes to the Middle East. Put differently, shuttle diplomacy of the kind Kissinger undertook belongs to the dustbin of history.