John Kerry squeals his tires

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Last week I had my annual day at the Department of State, my employer for 35 years before I retired to join the ranks of the ink-stained wretches who write newspaper editorials and opinion columns as they study foreign affairs from an irresponsible distance.

The department hosts about 20 of us from all over the country for briefings with senior officials who deal with virtually all parts of the world, starting usually with the secretary of state. We torment them with embarrassing questions and they tease us by leaving us up in the air until the last minute as to whether we will meet with the secretary, this time the newly appointed John F. Kerry.

This year they first told us we'd get an hour, then five minutes. We ended up with 35 minutes or so, counting the handshakes, but no questions. Mr. Kerry told me that his wife, Teresa Heinz, was after him to come to the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta this year. I told him that we loved her in Pittsburgh. (She gives generously to various Pittsburgh causes.)

Mr. Kerry's presentation broke little new ground. He talked about the interplay between foreign and domestic policy and referred to his maiden speech as secretary of state at the University of Virginia. (I didn't think much of it.) He noted that diplomats are cheaper to deploy overseas than troops and cited the State Department's laughably small budget, a little over 1 percent of the federal budget.

Mr. Kerry underlined his efforts at President Barack Obama's behest to revive peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, including a meeting he was having that day with some Arab League foreign ministers. (A reiteration of the 2002 Arab League proposal, with modifications in response to Israeli desires, emerged from that meeting.)

Mr. Kerry also -- wisely, in my view -- said his approach to foreign policy would embody a "new form" of economic engagement, drawing more heavily on the U.S. private sector than had been the case in Mr. Obama's first term. In particular he was exploring the possibilities of greater private-sector involvement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to try to increase the Palestinians' stake in resolving their disagreements with Israel.

It is far too early to draw any conclusions about Mr. Kerry's prospects for success in this or other foreign policy initiatives. I deeply hope he will be able to do more than his predecessor, Hillary Clinton. Ms. Clinton minded the traps well, traveling the globe and visiting many countries, but whether it was Mr. Obama's will, his running for reelection in 2012 or her own ambitions for 2016, the two of them ducked the big issues almost systematically. They sat on their hands on the Israeli/Palestinian issue, on India vs. Pakistan over Kashmir, on Afghanistan, on Syria, even on the relatively puny Greek/Turkish Cyprus issue. Nor can it be said that they substantially improved U.S. relations with Russia or China, the other big dogs on the block.

The United States always faces a kind of "use it or lose it" problem in trying to deploy its assets overseas. I would like to see Mr. Kerry swing a big bat diplomatically. Mr. Obama has bigger fish to fry at home, with the economy, employment and poverty demanding attention. The healthier the U.S. economy, the more weight our country wields abroad.

During my day at the State Department, I sensed another problem -- a normal one at this stage of Mr. Kerry's tenure but one that he urgently needs to address.

Mr. Kerry was sworn in as secretary about 14 weeks ago. As of the day of the briefings, nearly all of the key officials of his team had yet even to be nominated, much less confirmed by the Senate. That is a serious problem, overseas with the ambassadors and in Washington with the politically appointed levels below him. What it means is that Mr. Kerry is not yet in command of his ship in terms of making or implementing policy.

He does have some Clinton holdovers, although many of them headed for the exits when she did. First-term political appointees to ambassadorships have either left or are holding on, hoping that they can keep a job into a second term, although that is unlikely. We saw the result in our briefings last week. The officials who talked with us are not the ones who will be running foreign policy for the next four years. They lacked the authoritativeness that comes through having been chosen by the secretary, nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

It is perhaps not surprising that Mr. Kerry is making the mistake of trying to carry out policies before putting his team in place. He's been a senator, and senators do not preside over large, complex institutions that span the globe as the Department of State does. Of course it was tempting for him to begin dashing around the world, attacking problems and making speeches. But he would do much better to concentrate first on taking command of his own part of the foreign-affairs establishment.

Staffing key slots with people he can trust, from inside and outside the Foreign Service, should be the first step, even though it can be tedious with today's absurdly fractious Senate and politicized White House. I believe Mr. Kerry will find that to drive off without having done that is to invite serious problems of substance and coordination down the road.


Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (, 412-263-1976).


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