from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

The Problem of Mr. Kerry’s Comment

March 16, 2015

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Secretary of State Kerry has been busy in the last few days, making additional concessions to Iran and insulting anyone who wants to stop him--or even comment on what he’s doing. On the "major new concession" see this Reuters article, which notes that:

Reuters reported last week that the United States and five other powers and Iran have begun talking about a possible draft resolution to endorse any future deal and address the lifting of U.N. sanctions. The U.N. penalties could be eased quickly in the event of an agreement, Western officials said.

Officials close to the talks said this was a major new concession on the part of the United States, which had long insisted that U.N. sanctions would remain in place for years to come after a nuclear deal was signed, while unilateral U.S. and European measures might be lifted more swiftly.

"This was a quite a shift in the U.S. position and we hope the Iranians will follow with concessions on their end," a Western official told Reuters on condition of anonymity. "So far the concessions have been mostly one-sided, though there has been some limited progress recently."

As to the insult, that was directed at Senator Tom Cotton. I’ve discussed the open letter by Cotton and 46 other senators at some length in the New York Daily News  yesterday, and that article can be found here. On the CBS show Face the Nation, Kerry said this when asked if he planned on apologizing to Iran for the letter:

 I’m not going to apologize for the -- for an unconstitutional and unthought- out action by somebody who has been United States Senate for 60-some days.

That answer reveals a lot about Mr. Kerry. The letter, one should recall, was an "open letter," in other words an op-ed or public statement, not a private communication. The senators were voicing their opinions. They did not seek to engage the government of Iran (for example, to meet with its UN ambassador) or to practice diplomacy. (I do not recall Kerry criticizing then-Speaker Pelosi when she actually traveled to Damascus to engage the dictator Assad just when it was U.S. policy to try to isolate him.) The content of the letter was a lesson in American constitutionalism, reminding the ayatollahs that what Kerry had once himself said remains true: any agreement that is never approved by Congress can be changed by another president with the stroke of a pen.

But note the form of his pique: he resents being challenged by "somebody who has been United States Senate for 60-some days." Now, Cotton also served a term in the House and is a graduate of Harvard Law School (where presumably he learned some constitutional law), but frankly of all the arguments Kerry could have devised that is the very weakest. Who cares if John Kerry spent decades in the Senate and Cotton is new? Isn’t the issue who is right and who is wrong? Does anyone care about Kerry’s wounded amour propre?

Kerry’s years in the Senate may present another problem, and indeed according to some foreign diplomats already do. Any senator is a one-man band. Only he or she can vote; only his or her voice is listened to; staff is anonymous and invisible. A secretary of state is supposed to be different, relying on a large bureaucracy. In that bureaucracy, one hopes, there are skilled negotiators and Iran experts--but they are not negotiating now with Iran; Kerry is. Among the dangers here are that (a) he may not be a good negotiator, (b) he may not know the technical issues well enough, and (c) when he agrees to something there’s no fail-safe. If deputies were negotiating, there would be the chance to stop, review, reconsider, but if the secretary of state makes a deal and a commitment, that is very hard to do. Kerry’s failure to use his staff properly and his evident, frequent disconnection from his own department, are a worry. Foreign diplomats comment on all this frequently; it is no secret. Here’s another danger from having the secretary himself negotiate: when someone criticizes the way the deal is shaping up, he takes the criticism too personally and insults the critic instead of taking the criticism seriously. That’s what has just happened.

None of this tells us whether the proposed deal with Iran is good or bad, worth doing or worth dumping. But the arguments are going to have to be on the merits. They do not depend on whether Bob Corker has been chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as long as Kerry was, or whether Kerry served for decades and Cotton is a new senator.

 

 

 

 

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