But for someone with Kerry’s knowledge of the world and its leaders, his long experience in the fine art and crude realities of high-stakes international diplomacy, he made on this trip a surprising number of—there’s no other way to put it—rookie mistakes. The Americans as “stupid” business was only the beginning. At the Quai d’Orsay in Paris, where he fielded questions alongside French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, Kerry said, “Iran is a country with a government that was elected and that sits in the United Nations.” Again, the reporters cocked their heads. Was Kerry forgetting how the regime bloodied the streets of Tehran when the citizenry protested rigged elections in 2009?
Sometimes it was a matter of craft. Kerry routinely wound up talking longer than his hosts. His well-known weakness is wordiness: He is forever hoping people will “have the ability to be able to” do this or fretting something will “undermine our ability to be able to” do that. “The ability to be able to” was like a virus that followed us from country to country.
And in Ankara, appearing with Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Kerry simply spaced out and forgot to wear his headphones while Davutoglu was speaking in Turkish. After realizing Kerry wasn’t listening to him, the foreign minister stopped and mused, “I think you start to understand Turkish.” Amid peals of laughter, Kerry hurriedly fumbled with the headphones. Davutoglu strained for something unifying (“We are speaking not from the tongue to the ear but from the mind to the mind”) and moved on.
Only once did Kerry get testy with a reporter. The undeserving victim was NBC State Department producer Catherine Chomiak. Chestnut-haired and slender, with impeccable manners and large eyes framed by exquisite features, Chomiak is the very picture of a stylish young professional. At the news conference in Riyadh she followed up a question about Iran with a routine query about what Kerry planned to discuss during his upcoming lunch with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. “What do you think I might discuss with him?” Kerry snapped. A shudder rippled through the diplomatic corps; this was a guise we hadn’t seen. Kerry seemed to realize orneriness had gotten the better of him. The moment called for him to snap out of his funk and give Chomiak a substantive preview of the Abbas luncheon—something long enough, in any case, to dim the memory of his rudeness. But Kerry, perhaps fatigued in this, our seventh country in eight days, couldn’t be bothered. He mumbled perfunctorily about looking forward to the meeting and volunteered only that he and Abbas would discuss “all the obvious issues.”
Kerry’s frustration could perhaps be forgiven. At his Senate confirmation hearing on January 24 he had conveyed his belief that things were changing rapidly and profoundly and in such unpredictable ways, to the point that he seemed to be hinting at the unspeakable, namely that the challenges confronting American diplomats might be insurmountable. “Today’s world is more complicated than anything we have experienced,” Kerry told his old colleagues on the Foreign Relations Committee. He quoted his old nemesis from the Vietnam era, Henry Kissinger: “None of the most important countries which must build a new world order have had any experience with the multistate system that is emerging. Never before has a new world order had to be assembled from so many different perceptions or on so global a scale. Nor has any previous order had to combine the attributes of the historic balance-of-power system with global democratic opinion and the exploding technology of the contemporary period.”
In lay terms, this means the old framework that has effectively governed international relations since World War II is coming apart. Leading nations, no less than internet giants, terrorist groups and criminal syndicates, blithely brush aside UN Security Council resolutions and other unenforceable constructs of international law. There’s no unwritten pecking order of states anymore, no impenetrable nuclear club. The old order installed by FDR, Stalin, Churchill and de Gaulle in 1945 is being replaced by—who the hell knows? The post-9/11 era is proving to be just shy of anarchic. At the hearing, Kerry, in his usual style, reeled off 10 modern developments that herald this death of the old order: “the emergence of China; the Arab Awakening; inextricably linked economic, health, environmental and demographic issues; [WMD] proliferation; poverty; pandemic disease; refugees; conflict ongoing in Afghanistan; entire populations and faiths struggling with the demands of modernity; and the accelerating pace of technological innovation invading all of that, shifting power from nation-states to individuals.”
All this, in short, is why no American secretary of state, upon assuming office, really expects to succeed anymore, to forge demonstrable progress on the major problems, or “challenges,” of our time, the way secretaries of state from both parties once appeared able to do. Moreover, Kerry’s ascent to the pinnacle of American diplomacy comes in the #epicfail era, an epoch of suffocating U.S. debt, an almost comically dysfunctional slog through slowdowns and sequesters, fiscal cliffs and ratings downgrades, perpetually uneven job creation and quarterly growth. Secretary Clinton had warned about the constricting effect our nation’s dismal finances, including the large share of our debt owned by China, can have on America’s ability to influence people and events overseas: the very mission of the State Department. In such a time, American swagger abroad ain’t what it used to be.
Secretary Kerry found this out the hard way. From London he’d been forced to plead, in a desperate telephone call, for Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib, the civilian leader of the “Syrian rebels,” to show up at a major conference in Rome—the centerpiece of Kerry’s trip—at which the U.S. was to announce a fresh pledge of $60 million in nonlethal aid to the opposition. To recap: At a time when Washington lawmakers were debating which vital domestic spending programs to cut, the U.S. wanted to give the Syrian rebels $60 million worth of stuff—and the secretary of state practically had to beg their leader to show up. And when the wiry al-Khatib arrived at Villa Madama, the bucolic Italian foreign ministry, he scarcely grunted out a thank-you to Kerry or to the Italian foreign minister, Giulio Terzi, before launching into an Arabic rant that rebuked the allies for their preoccupation with al-Nusra. “I am tired of [this],” al-Khatib said, close to shouting, through his translator. “The mass media pay more attention to the length of the beard of a fighter than to the [government’s] massacres. No terrorists in the world have such a savage nature as that of the Syrian regime.” Kerry could only stand there, occasionally stiffening his spine and blinking with annoyance. Three weeks later al-Khatib announced his resignation.
In Cairo, Kerry’s feckless interlocutor was the Muslim Brotherhood government led by Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, whose poor economic stewardship and ham-fisted power grabs had given rise to bloody unrest in major cities. A few months earlier a videotape from 2010 had surfaced in which Morsi, a bearded man with thick eyeglasses and a deceptively benign visage, declared Jews “the descendants of apes and pigs” and urged Egyptians to “nurse our children and grandchildren on hatred” for them. The leaders of the major civil-society opposition groups in Egypt—the individuals who represented Washington’s best hopes for displacing Morsi and the Brotherhood and restoring to power a more reliable ally in the world’s most populous Arab nation—refused to be seen with Kerry. One opposition figure skulked into a private session with the secretary of state; the other spoke with him by phone. The interior minister refused to provide Kerry’s motorcade with an escort from the airport to the Cairo Sheraton. And neither Morsi nor his foreign minister held a news conference with Kerry.
The secretary’s mission in Cairo was to prod major interest groups there to take shared risks to stop Egypt’s downward spiral since the heady days of Tahrir Square. “It is paramount, essential, urgent that the Egyptian economy get stronger,” Kerry told the business leaders. “You have to get people back to work, and the energy of this country needs to hopefully be able to move from the streets to enterprise.” He urged the opposition not to boycott parliamentary elections set for April. He implored the financial community to invest more in women and education. Most important, he leaned on Morsi to press forward with some unpopular economic measures—raising taxes, eliminating sacred-cow subsidies—so Egypt could qualify for a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan, a deal the Obama administration was eager to advance. Until now, though, Morsi’s true intentions—toward the IMF, America, Israel, Jews, democracy, you name it—remained difficult for Kerry and his aides to discern.
State Department officials later said the principals’ session lasted two and a half hours, including an hour of one-on-one time. Kerry emerged from it so persuaded of Morsi’s sincerity in pledging to administer the IMF reforms and extend an olive branch to his political opponents that Kerry decided on the spot to unlock $250 million in frozen U.S. aid. Within 72 hours the same aides stood in the same airplane cabin and informed us that the Egyptian Supreme Court had just canceled the parliamentary elections set for April and that the intentions of Morsi and the Brotherhood were again proving difficult to discern.
The final leg, a tour of Persian Gulf nations, proved anticlimactic. Nothing in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates or Qatar matched the architecture: sprawling hotel complexes with hundred-foot ceilings, turrets and arches, brand-new Disneyesque castles with Bellagio-style fountains and hypnotic Arabic design swirls. On our return, little from the trip seemed to have exerted a lasting impact on world affairs. In April a 25-year-old FSO from the Chicago area named Anne Smedinghoff was killed during a suicide-bomb attack in Afghanistan just days after she had served as support staff for a Kerry visit there. For many the episode, which moved Kerry deeply, conjured the killings at Benghazi on September 11, 2012, the last time U.S. diplomatic personnel had been lost to violence. I recalled my conversation with two FSOs in a Middle Eastern country during the trip. A young woman, probably Smedinghoff’s age, was lamenting how little attention Americans pay to the work of their diplomats. “How do we change that?” she asked. “Easy,” said her colleague, a sci-fi nerd. “Get killed in the line of duty.” Leading these dazed shock troops in the titanic struggle of ideologies—what Kerry likes to call “the clash of modernity”—is a secretary of state who, regardless of how you feel about his politics, was born for the job, has all the experience and tools, knows the geography and players, sailed through his Senate confirmation 94–3 and who, despite all that, represents a dysfunctional government and encounters a world whose hostility seems only to grow.
Every sign of progress in establishing a new order that Kerry might have “the ability to be able to” observe yields, sooner or later, to encroaching anarchy. America still has some money to give away, but as Kerry wanders the boneyard of ideas between engagement and isolation, brandishing his carrots and sticks and making his 10-point arguments for why the developing world should embrace liberal democracy over authoritarianism and radical Islam, the response is too often rooted in sheer perversity, a Bizarro World inversion of, or just plain disregard for, everything the West considers the inherited wisdom of the ages. Up is down! maintain the Russians and the Chinese, the mullahs in Iran, Assad, al-Nusra, Morsi, Karzai. Black is white! God is on our side! The old order is dead!
The diplomat who understands this best is Prince Saud al-Faisal, the dean of foreign ministers. On Hillary Clinton’s last visit to Riyadh, a year before Kerry arrived there, the prince told her, “We are living in a world where truth and falsehood have become mixed.”