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Tomgram: Peter Van Buren, America's Top Diplomat is Lost in Space

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

If it's Tuesday, this must be Belgium -- the title of a 1969 romantic comedy -- could now fit two intertwined phenomena: the madcap global travels of Secretary of State John Kerry and the nonstop journey of the latest revelations from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.  In mid-August, there was Kerry in Brazil, lamely defending the NSA's surveillance program, even as he tried to pacify local ire over reports that the agency was monitoring phone calls and emails on a mass scale there.  (And this was before the news even broke that the NSA had hacked into President Dilma Rousseff's emails and spied on Brazil's major oil company.) "We're not surprised and we're not upset that Brazil would ask questions. Absolutely understandable," Kerry said at the time. "Brazil is owed answers with respect to those questions and they will get them. And we will work together very positively to make certain that this question -- these issues -- do not get in the way of all the other things that we talked about." As it happened, no answers were forthcoming.  A month later, Rousseff would cancel a long-planned visit to Washington and denounce the NSA's spying at the U.N.

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Skip two months to late October, and there Kerry was again, this time in France trying to pacify an angry ally over another revelation of a massive NSA eavesdropping operation.  ("We will have ongoing bilateral consultations, including with our French partners, to address this question of any reports by the U.S. government gathering information from some of the agencies and those consultations are going to continue.")  Meanwhile, he was still trying to defend that agency's basic program in similarly foggy language.  ("Protecting the security of our citizens in today's world is a very complicated, very challenging task... because there are lots of people out there seeking to do harm to other people.")  And then, in a no-rest-for-the-weary world, on he went to Italy, whose population had just been outed as the latest victim of NSA spying, and whose foreign minister was demanding "clarity" on the issue.  With much of Europe up in arms over America's expanding global security state, he once again resorted to his rope-a-dope technique, taking the local punches while offering public pabulum about our dearest allies and how much the Obama administration cares for them and how Americans nonetheless have to be protected from the evil doers, etc., etc.  Only as October ended, two and a half months after his Brazilian trip, did the secretary of state become the first Obama administration official to admit that "in some cases, some of these actions have reached too far."

By now, Kerry's act had all the charm of a clown fireman putting out a blaze at a circus only to set himself on fire.  If this repetitive scene, in which the Snowden revelations stay just ahead of the eternally globetrotting secretary of state, doesn't quite add up to a real life version of Batman and Robin, the dynamic duo, it still has to be the spectacle of 2013.  Given the recent Guardian report that the NSA has listened in on at least 35 heads of state (and that's only phone calls, not emails), Kerry could be an even busier man in the months to come.  As TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren, former State Department whistleblower and author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, points out, Kerry's already legendary global travels are matched by a legendary cluelessness that reflects a particularly twenty-first-century Washington state of mind. Tom

Ramblin' Man
John Kerry is a Figure of His Times (and That's Not a Good Thing)
By Peter Van Buren

In the 1960s, John Kerry was distinctly a man of his times. Kennedy-esque, he went from Yale to Vietnam to fight in a lost war. When popular sentiments on that war shifted, he became one of the more poignant voices raised in protest by antiwar veterans. Now, skip past his time as a congressman, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, senator, and presidential candidate (Swift Boated out of the race by the Republican right). Four decades after his Vietnam experience, he has achieved what will undoubtedly be the highest post of his lifetime: secretary of state. And he's looked like a bumbler first class.  Has he also been -- once again -- a true man of his time, of a moment in which American foreign policy, as well as its claim to global moral and diplomatic leadership, is in remarkable disarray?

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In his nine months in office, Kerry's State Department has one striking accomplishment to its name. It has achieved a new level of media savvy in promoting itself and plugging its highest official as a rock star, a world leader in his own right (complete with photo-ops and sophisticated image-making). In the meantime, the secretary of state has been stumbling and bloviating from one crisis to the next, one debacle to another, surrounded by the well-crafted imagery of diplomatic effectiveness. He and his errant statements have become global punch lines, but is he truly to blame for his performance?

If statistics were diplomacy, Kerry would already be a raging success. At the State Department, his global travels are now proudly tracked by the mile, by minutes flown, and by countries visited. State even has a near-real-time ticker page set up at its website with his ever-changing data. In only nine months in office, Kerry has racked up 222,512 miles and a staggering 482.39 hours in the air (or nearly three weeks total). The numbers will be going up as Kerry is currently taking a 10-day trip to deal with another NSA crisis, in Poland this time, as well as the usual hijinks in the Middle East.  His predecessor, Hillary Clinton, set a number of diplomatic travel records. In fact, she spent literally a full year, one quarter of her four years in office, hopscotching the globe. By comparison, Cold War Secretary of State George Schultz managed less than a year of travel time in his six years in office.

Kerry's quick start in racking up travel miles is the most impressive aspect of his tenure so far, given that it's been accompanied by record foreign policy stumbles and bumbles. With the thought that frenetic activity is being passed off as diplomacy and accomplishment, let's do a little continent hopping ourselves, surveying the diplomatic and foreign policy terrain the secretary's visited. So, fasten your seatbelt, we're on our way!

We'll Be Landing in Just a Few Minutes... in Asia

Despite Asia's economic importance, its myriad potential flashpoints, and the crucial question of how the Sino-American relationship will evolve, Kerry has managed to visit the region just once on a largely ceremonial basis.

Diplomatically speaking, the Obama administration's much ballyhooed "pivot to Asia" seems to have run out of gas almost before it began and with little to show except some odd photos of the secretary of state looking like Fred Munster in Balinese dress at the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference. With President Obama then trapped in Washington by the shutdown/debt-ceiling crisis, Kerry seemed like a bystander at APEC, with China the dominant presence. He was even forced to suffer through a Happy Birthday sing-along for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the meantime, the economy of Washington's major ally, Japan, remains sleepy, even as opposition to the U.S.-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade pact grows and North Korea continues to expand its nuclear program seemingly unaffected by threats from Washington.

All in all, it's not exactly an impressive picture, but rest assured that it'll look as fetching as a bright spring day, once we hit our next stop. In fact, ladies and gentlemen, the pilot now asks that you all return to your seats, because we will soon be landing...

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... in the Middle East

If any area of the world lacks a single bright spot for the U.S., it's the Middle East. The problems, of course, extend back many years and many administrations. Kerry is a relative newcomer. Still, he's made seven of his 15 overseas trips there, with zero signs of progress on the American agenda in the region, and much that has only worsened.

The sole pluses came from diplomatic activity initiated by powers not exactly considered Washington's closest buddies: Russian President Putin's moves in relation to Syria (on which more later) and new Iranian President Rouhani's "charm offensive" in New York, which seems to have altered for the better the relationship between the two countries. In fact, both Putin's and Rouhani's moves are classic, well-played diplomacy, and only serve to highlight the amateurish quality of Kerry's performance. On the other hand, the Obama administration's major Middle East commitment -- to peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians -- seems destined for a graveyard already piled high with past versions of the same.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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