There is a scene in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart where the British and Scottish armies mass at a battlefield, ready to wage war. Before the actual battle ensues, the head of the British army speaks with an underling who urges his superior to offer the Scottish army the “king’s terms” as a way to defuse the conflict without bloodshed. The superior officer scoffs at the suggestion and questions the Scots’ ability to meet these terms. The underling insists, and the superior officer grudgingly agrees, riding off to meet his Scottish counterparts mid-field to deliver to them the “king’s terms”. The Scots, through their recently (self-) anointed commander, William Wallace, reject these terms and, under Wallace’s leadership, proceed to slaughter the British army despite being heavily outnumbered and under-equipped.
The arrogance and ineptitude of the Brits, as portrayed in this scene, is reminiscent of how the United States has conducted its foreign policy during this administration and ones that have preceded it in years past. And no other person better embodies these traits than the current U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry.
When the Syrian government started gassing its own people to death, the United States, with Kerry as its representative on the world stage, rightly condemned the practice. Obama himself drew the now infamous “red line” which he warned the Syrian government not to cross when it came to snuffing out its antagonists. But once the Syrian government crossed this line, which almost everyone surely knew it would do, the United States had no meaningful response. It engaged in a half-hearted effort to punish the Syrian regime with threats of missile strikes.
Then came the “king’s terms”. As the deadline approached for what might have been a U.S.-led military strike, Kerry publicly dismissed the notion of an alternative non-military approach, pushed by the Russians, in which Syria would turn over all its chemical weapons to international authorities.
In Kerry’s words: ”Sure, he [Syrian President al-Assad] could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting [of it]. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done.”
What is significant about all this is not that the Syrians ultimately agreed to a disarmament plan or how they have gone about complying with the terms of the plan or even the instrumental role played by Russia in making the plan a reality, but that such a high level official of the U.S. government would publicly cast judgment on what another government could or could not do without even a moment’s reflection as to the appropriateness of his remarks. [Immediately after Kerry’s ill-fated statement, the State Department, in another foolish move, went into damage-control mode, describing it as a “rhetorical argument” rather than an actual proposal.]
The “shoot first, ask questions later” approach of U.S. foreign policy can also be seen in the events that have been unfolding in Ukraine and more recently the Middle East “peace process”, another brainchild of Kerry’s. The Israeli government, which knows a thing or two about zealotry, called Kerry “messianic” in his determination to force an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. As the Israeli defense minister put it, “The only thing that can save us is if Kerry wins the Nobel prize and leaves us alone.” The Israelis may have gotten their wish now that the peace talks are in shambles, but at the expense of the credibility of the United States, and Kerry specifically, who foolishly waded into the minefield that is Middle East politics without any kind of exit strategy.
It should be clear by now that when it comes to engaging nations abroad the U.S. has no coherent plan or vision. It’s vision is that of the individuals who make up its foreign policy establishment, whose massive egos and petty political point-scoring blind them to the true interests of the people to whom they are sworn to serve.
And who could blame them? Having made of mess of country after country for years on end, maybe the U.S. is finally coming to its senses: that the way to exert its moral authority abroad is with what Obama has called a “light footprint”. Or maybe that is just another way of saying, we have no clue what to do next, and whatever it might be, just make sure it doesn’t look like another Iraq or Afghanistan.