John Kerry has many faults, but poverty of ambition is not among them. In the first half of 2014, the US Secretary of State has placed two items at the top of his “to do” list. One: secure a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, preferably by April. Two: settle the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear ambitions once and for all, hopefully before August. Then, with both of those Gordian knots safely cut, Mr Kerry might turn his hand to other tasks, like curing cancer, or exploring mining opportunities on Mars.
In truth, the easy jibes are unfair – for Mr Kerry really has decided that his mission is to settle the most poisonous and intractable conflicts the world has to offer. Other holders of his job, such as Colin Powell, were crippled by the follies of their presidents. Some, such as Hillary Clinton, shrank away from the thorniest problems because of their own ambitions to win the highest office. But Mr Kerry sees things differently. He believes that if the foreign minister of the world’s superpower is not going to accept responsibility for trying to solve these problems, no one else will.
Having seen his presidential ambitions go up in smoke when he lost to George W Bush in 2004, Mr Kerry is now bidding for the ultimate consolation prize: to be remembered as the most significant secretary of state since George Marshall. Indeed, at the age of 70, Mr Kerry appears to have been liberated from the fear of failure.
Concentrating on the Middle East is a remarkable choice in itself. We live in a world where Asia is booming, China’s rise appears unstoppable and America’s great strategic interests lie in the Pacific. Back in 2011, President Obama announced that the focus of US military and diplomatic strength would “pivot” towards Asia. Yet Mr Kerry landed in Israel yesterday, visiting the Middle East for 10th time since taking office only 11 months ago. Asked whether the Secretary of State was spending the majority of his time on the Middle East, a State Department official archly raised an eyebrow and replied: “Oh yes!”
In other words, Mr Kerry is now doing exactly what European leaders have always demanded of America. Throughout the Bush era, one European foreign minister after another would lament Washington’s failure to negotiate directly with Iran, or to make a sustained push for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. In diplomatic parlance, “American engagement” was the missing piece of the puzzle – and nothing else would work.
William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, sang from this hymn sheet when Mr Kerry flew to London within days of taking office last year. In the gilded splendour of the Locarno Suite in the Foreign Office, the Secretary of State listened as Mr Hague spoke of the “burning need” to restart peace talks “between Israelis and Palestinians”.
Well, Mr Kerry did as he was asked. As things stand, the Israelis and Palestinians are indeed talking – and Mr Kerry has set a deadline of April for them to achieve a “final status agreement” that would settle their conflict. Meanwhile, America and Iran eased their confrontation over the nuclear issue with the agreement reached in Geneva last November. This places handcuffs on Iran’s nuclear programme for six months starting from Jan 30, meaning that a final deal must be concluded before August.
So far, so good. But there is one profound problem: while it makes him an ideal Secretary of State in European eyes, Mr Kerry’s ambition runs up against the zeitgeist. For he has chosen to expend all this effort in the Middle East at precisely the moment when US influence across the region is in general decline.
Partly, this is down to Bashar al-Assad’s brazen defiance in Syria, where he vaulted over President Obama’s red line and gassed his own people without paying a military price. Then there is America’s possible rapprochement with Iran. Both of Washington’s strongest allies in the region – Israel and Saudi Arabia – are appalled by this spectacle and each may respond by going their own way. After all, almost a decade of expensive oil has given the Saudis and the other Gulf states enough money to chart an independent course.
Such countries have spent decades sheltering under US protection – but today their view of America is changing. They remember Mr Obama’s failure to punish Assad, and question his credibility and his resolve to use force in their region. They bitterly recall how the President threw his country’s old friend, Hosni Mubarak, overboard the moment the crowds gathered in Tahrir Square. How would Washington react, they ask, if they were to face a similar challenge?
So Mr Kerry might be spending most of his time on the Middle East, but the region is in no mood to listen. And there is an added irony: even if he achieves one of his goals and reaches a deal with Iran, which he just might, it will hurt America’s standing with its friends, and so reduce its chances of brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
Once again, the Middle East is proving itself a graveyard of Western hopes. The region has what it was awaiting for decades: a Secretary of State prepared to do whatever he can to solve its problems. But the region has prepared a terrible revenge: the moment America is finally serious about bringing peace could be the moment it no longer has the power to do so.
David Blair returned to the Daily Telegraph to become Chief Foreign Correspondent in November 2011. He previously worked for the paper as Diplomatic Editor, Africa Correspondent and Middle East Correspondent.