John Kerry has made his choice. Chaos in the Middle East is more important to him than historic power shifts in Asia and Europe. Passion, rather than geopolitical vision, drives this secretary of state. And it is a very derivative passion that drives him: one that has its origin in media obsessions.
Kerry, it seems, will be tied down in two major negotiations in coming months: one with the Russians about overseeing the elimination of Syrian President Bashar al Assad's chemical weapons, and the other with the Israelis and Palestinians to get them to agree on terms for a comprehensive peace. The first negotiation grants Russia a pivotal role in the Middle East, thereby undoing decades of American grand strategy -- but now necessary to rescue President Barack Obama's credibility after the president, in an undisciplined moment, threatened war over Assad's use of chemical weapons. Oh, by the way, the deal is probably for the most part unworkable because of the logistical complexities of removing dozens of chemical weapons sites from a war zone. The second negotiation has only a small prospect of success, even as its strategic value for the United States is arguably over-rated: for the United States is already the dominant outside power in geographical Palestine, even without a peace treaty. Perhaps Kerry will get a reprieve of sorts if serious negotiations commence over Iran's nuclear program; at least then he will be involved in a regional discussion that has undeniable value.
Kerry, to be sure, will likely be making official visits to other theaters, including Asia and Europe. But he will fool nobody in those regions. The Asians know that he has much less interest in their region than did his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, who traveled back and forth to Asia throughout her tenure -- giving the world's economic and demographic hub more attention than any secretary of state since Henry Kissinger. China, with its growing military, can breathe a bit easier now as the Americans look once again to be distracted in the Middle East. As for those in Central and Eastern Europe, they know that the Obama administration's open-door policy to the Russians in the Middle East will only encourage Russian assertiveness, however subtle, in their region. The Obama administration's message to countries like Poland, Romania, Ukraine and Azerbaijan is one of neglect combined with weakness.
Indeed, the only strategic innovation of Obama's presidency thus far has been his "pivot" to Asia. The pivot meant that rather than withdraw inward following two wars in the Middle East -- a policy of quasi-isolationism that served America poorly throughout its history -- America would instead shift its focus to a more important region of the world. You may not agree with the pivot, or with its assumptions, but in the uncreative world of State Department bureaucracy it does count as a major innovation. Kerry has now undermined it.
But can't the Pentagon fill in for the State Department in Asia? After all, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey, both being thoroughly practical men who clearly want no part of a war in Syria, would be only too happy to focus on the balance of military power in Asia, given China's latent aggression. And isn't the pivot anyway mere empty atmospherics? The answer to both suggestions is a qualified "no."