Precisely because Kerry is so focused on the Middle East and continues to threaten consequences if Assad does not turn over his chemical weapons, the Pentagon will continue to be distracted by war plans for Syria. Hagel and Dempsey simply can't focus on Asia to the extent that they want and need to. Moreover, power, especially in the media age, is often the power to persuade and to coerce, which, in turn, is based on ground-level presence, both military and diplomatic. If your diplomacy is, relative to another region, absent, then people doubt the level of your commitment. And when the level of your commitment is doubted, your power declines. For diplomacy is often a matter of subtexts and intangibles. So if you are a country threatened by a militarily rising China -- like Japan or Vietnam or the Philippines -- you know that Hillary Clinton was a more reliable friend than is John Kerry with his occasional drive-by visit.
Middle Eastern chaos is tragic in human terms but so far limited in its effect on the world economy, and, in any case, is something that the United States can do very little about. Meanwhile, Russia is increasing its influence in Central and Eastern Europe and China's military growth threatens to upset the regional power balance. These are more important phenomena about which America can do more to help. Russia will not always be so dominant in world energy markets and China's slowly unraveling economy may at some point threaten its military rise: but these are middle- and long-term possibilities that America and its allies cannot count on for the moment.
Of course, it is possible for Kerry to use a Syrian chemical weapons deal with Russia in order open a wider negotiating track with Moscow, one in which Washington and the Kremlin might reach understandings on Europe, the Caucasus, and the Far East -- with Russia restraining itself a bit more in Europe, balancing against Turkey and Iran in the Caucasus, and balancing against China in the Far East. But that is a somewhat fantastic hypothetical, which to be even partially achieved would require considerable American leverage. And Kerry, rather than communicate leverage, has signaled only an obsession with the human rights consequences of Syrian chaos, even as the Russians must now doubt Washington's threats to ever use force against Damascus. Rather than an overarching strategy to deal with encroaching Russian and Chinese power in Eurasia, Kerry has instead demonstrated strategic incoherence: the sacrificing of considerable geopolitical consequences for the sake of an American president's domestic reputation.
Again, it is a matter of all-important perceptions. When Henry Kissinger invited the Russians to participate in Middle East peace talks in December 1973 in Geneva, it was clear that he was giving them only the appearance of influence without the substance. For the substance he had already worked out through shuttle diplomacy in the region. Contrarily, Kerry has the air of desperation about him, with no choice left but to grasp the offer of Russian power in both its form and substance.
Few can be as frightened over this spectacle as the leaders in the eastern half of Greater Europe, from the Baltic states to the Caucasus. Here Russian intimidation is often expressed in terms of decisions on pipeline routes and hydrocarbon prices. Ukraine, for example, dependent on Russia for energy, was able to look to the United States for support in the 1990s and early 2000s; now it has little choice but to look more to Germany, knowing that Germany must -- because of its geography -- maintain its own balance of power between the West and Russia. Truly, the Obama administration's perceived lack of cunning in the Middle East will continue to have ripple effects around the globe.
Talleyrand, the Napoleonic era statesman who was opposed to stern morals in foreign policy, is credited with the notion that in affairs of state a blunder is worse than a crime. So here we have a secretary of state who plays the role of a moralist, trying to rescue his president following a colossal blunder: that of threatening force without being serious about it. The United States is so geographically well endowed that it can afford years of mediocre foreign policy and even occasional incompetent foreign policy without having its security fundamentally undermined. But it is America's allies, not so geographically endowed, who suffer.