If an Israeli high-level official were caught on a hot mic candidly commenting on Secretary of State John Kerry's ill-fated act of Israel-Hamas peacemaking, he might call it "a hell of a diplomatic foray."
Kerry was caught sarcastically describing the Israeli offensive into Gaza as "a hell of a pinpoint operation" during his round of Sunday-show interviews two weeks ago, before telling his aide over the phone, "We've got to get over there," and "It's crazy to be sitting around."
Kerry's belief in himself as the Indispensable Man is touchingly quaint. His conception of the U.S. secretary of state is apparently frozen in a time when it was a position of unparalleled power and respect. Those days are gone.
Or as President Barack Obama might quip, to paraphrase his put-down of Mitt Romney's foreign-policy views during one of the 2012 presidential debates, "John, the 1980s want their secretary of state back."
After six years of resetting, leading from behind, ending wars, nation building at home and pivoting to Asia, the U.S. has reduced itself to a husk of its former influence. When Kerry showed up in Cairo to meet with the president of Egypt, he was wanded by the guards, as if he had just wandered in from the airport security line.
Kerry underlined his dubious relevance by his inability to secure a cease-fire, and his dubious wisdom by making it his overarching goal. At this point, after Israel has committed itself on the ground, the U.S. should be seeking to give it the time it needs to do as much damage as possible to Hamas' military infrastructure, instead of effectively bailing out the terror group.
Kerry held an ill-advised confab in Paris with Qatar and Turkey, the patrons of Hamas. Even the Palestinian Authority blasted this as the "friends of Hamas" meeting. With the Egyptians, the Saudis, the Emiratis, the Jordanians and the Palestinian Authority all functionally on Israel's side in the Gaza War, it should be in a superior diplomatic position, but its superpower patron evidently didn't get the memo.
By the time Kerry returned home, he had been showered with so much criticism by the Israelis that the U.S. government was saying it could endanger our relationship. The question raised by Obama administration foreign policy again and again is, How can self-styled Smart Power be so dumb and toothless?
For all of Kerry's failings, he is a relative giant among a foreign-policy team composed largely of political hacks and post-American declinists. At least Kerry retains some of the old Democratic Party belief in America's importance in the world. His condemnation of Syria's use of chemical weapons last year was a stirring moral indictment of the Assad regime - although President Obama immediately undercut him when he abandoned his own "red lines."
So far, Kerry's tenure as secretary of state is making Hillary Clinton's undistinguished stint look impressive by comparison. But that's mostly a matter of timing. It is his misfortune to be present at the unraveling, as crisis after crisis unfolds, with the administration lacking the interest or the tough-mindedness to effectively respond.
It is impossible to find anywhere in the world where our position or alliances are stronger than they were six years ago. Incredibly enough, President Obama once called Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist prime minister of Turkey, more than any foreign leader other than British Prime Minister David Cameron. Now, Obama hasn't even talked to Erdogan in five months, and his erstwhile buddy condemns Israel as a "terror state."
One hopeful theory about Obama foreign policy was that, after serial humiliations and failures, it would recalibrate toward more assertiveness, like Jimmy Carter did after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But he seems content with America's new status in the world. John Kerry will just have to get used to it.