John Kerry: We Have a Middle East Strategy

John Kerry, US Senator from Massachusetts, speaks in 2005.

by Derek Davison

In a speech in Washington on Wednesday to kick off the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s “Arab World Horizons” project, Secretary of State John Kerry articulated and defended the Obama administration’s Middle East strategy. He described the current unrest in the region as a struggle between “destroyers” and “builders” and placed the United States on the side of the “builders.” He said:

Beyond all the cold statistics, beyond the daily headlines in the newspapers, beyond the talking heads, the impact of violence on the Middle East…there is a humanity of people just like us, who yearn simply to help one another and share affection from one generation to the next. And beyond all the complexities in the region, there is also something very basic going on: a struggle between people who are intent on opening wounds, or leaving them open, and those who want to close them, and heal, and build a future. It is this struggle between destroyers and builders that informs every aspect of American policy in the Middle East…Our goal is to help ensure that builders and healers throughout the region have the chance they need to accomplish their tasks.

Kerry defended continued American engagement in the region, arguing that “it would be directly and profoundly contrary to our nation’s interests” to disengage. He cited the interconnectedness of global society and markets, as well as the example of 9/11 (when, in his words, “we learned…that regional threats become global very quickly”). He talked about the “incredible opportunities” that might exist in the region if its problems of violence and poor leadership could be alleviated, and he again invoked the idea of supporting the region’s “builders” against such destructive forces:

If the builders are going to succeed, they’re going to have to be protected from the dangers that are posed by terrorists, by strife, by violence, by weapons of mass destruction, and America’s security strategy in the Middle East is precisely designed to try to aid in each of these areas.

Kerry’s speech highlighted three areas in which he claimed that the Obama administration has worked and is working to support Middle Eastern “builders”: the nuclear deal with Iran, the Israel-Palestine peace process, and the fight against the Islamic State (which includes efforts to end the Syrian civil war).

The Iran Deal

Noting that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action reached its first milestone, “Adoption Day,” 10 days ago, Kerry said that he hoped that the agreement’s supporters and opponents would now “come together to support its full and verifiable implementation.” He was “absolutely convinced” that the deal will make the United States, its allies, and the rest of the world safer. He then talked in fairly hawkish terms about the prospects for a deeper thawing in U.S.-Iran relations:

As you recall, when negotiations were going on, there was speculation about what an agreement might mean for relations between Washington and Tehran. Was it possible that a breakthrough on the nuclear issue would be able to open the door to broader cooperation? Some welcomed that prospect and some, to be truthful, were alarmed by that prospect. So I want to be clear, that we meant exactly what we said: the Iran deal was considered on its own terms. Just nuclear terms. It was the right thing to do whether or not it leads to other areas of cooperation.

We’re not making any assumptions about Iran’s future policies, because we base our approach on observable facts. And what we see, obviously, is that Iran continues to engage in playing to sectarian divisions in the region, and that it continues to detain several American citizens, in our estimation without justification. Tehran’s policies are one reason why we are working so closely and so supportively with our partners in the region, including the Gulf states and Israel.


Kerry directly addressed the ongoing violence in Jerusalem around the status of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount area:

Within the past week, I have met with Prime Minister Netanyahu, with President Abbas, with King Abdullah, with King Salman of Saudi Arabia, with others, and we all agreed on the importance of ending the violence in Israel, Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank, and of making it clear that the status quo at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif will not be changed…

The current situation is simply not sustainable…It is absolutely vital for Israel to take steps that empower Palestinian leaders, to improve economic opportunities and the quality of life for their people on a day to day basis, and it is equally important for Palestinian leaders to cease the incitement to violence, and to offer something more than rhetoric. Instead, propose solutions that will contribute in a real way to the improvement of life, to the reduction of violence, and to the safety and security of Israelis. Firm and creative leadership on both sides is absolutely essential. A two-state solution with strong security protections remains the only viable alternative, and for anybody who thinks otherwise, you can measure what unitary looks like by just looking at what’s been going on in the last weeks. The United States absolutely remains prepared to do what we can to make that [two-state solution] possible.

Combating the Islamic State/Ending the War in Syria

Kerry listed the various crimes against humanity—executions, rampant sexual violence, kidnappings, smuggling, destruction of historical sites—of the Islamic State (ISIS, IS, or the term Kerry prefers to use: Daesh). The secretary of state then talked about the administration’s ongoing efforts to contain and defeat the group. He noted America’s leadership of the “65-member coalition to take on Daesh” and cited successes in driving IS out of the Syrian cities of Kobane and Tell Abyad and the Iraqi city of Tikrit. He did not talk about the shift in U.S. strategy that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter laid out for the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday, though he did mention last week’s Special Forces hostage rescue mission in Iraq, which may be the model for one of the key parts of the shift that Carter described.

Kerry was adamant that IS cannot be fully defeated without a settlement to Syria’s civil war, now in its fifth year:

At the end of the day, nothing would do more to bolster the fight against Daesh than a political transition that sidelines Assad, so that we can unite more of the country against extremism. We have to eliminate the mindset, which was encouraged from the beginning by both Assad and Daesh, that the only choice Syrians have is between the two of them…this is a mindset that drives those who fear the terrorists to side with the dictator, and those who fear the dictator to side with the terrorists. This is the mindset that has transformed Syria into a killing field.

Toward the goal of ending the Syrian war, Kerry said that he was about to return to Vienna for new international talks on a settlement, talks that will for the first time include Iran, Assad’s closest ally. Kerry called these talks “the most promising opportunity for a political opening” to end the war.

Hope for a Peaceful, Prosperous Middle East

Kerry also had words for those he described as “skeptics” of the prospects for democracy to take root in the Arab world, and for those he said were “fueling” IS’s propaganda by treating sectarian division and discord as simply a fact of Middle Eastern life:

To skeptics who say that democracy can’t make it in the Middle East and North Africa, I reply with one word: Tunisia. Here, where the Arab Spring was born, we’re not finding a paradise, but we’re finding a place where leaders from opposing factions have been willing to put the interests of the nation above their personal interests, where civil society played a vital role in spurring political dialogue, where power was transferred peacefully from one leader to the next in accordance with the rule of law, and where diverse perspectives, including both secular and religious, are not being repressed, but they’re actually being encouraged and taken into account. What is happening in Tunisia is important for the people there, obviously, but it is also instructive for the entire region. Tunisia is showing what it means to be builders in the Middle East.

Please do not accept the view of some that the Middle East must inevitably be divided along sectarian lines, especially between Sunni and Shi?a Muslims. Nothing fuels the propaganda of Daesh and other terrorist organizations more than this myth. This simplistic and cynical view is not only not true historically, it’s not true today…Daesh will rise and fall on its ability to drive good people apart, and that is precisely why I say it will fail.

Kerry closed his speech by returning to the theme of “builders” and “destroyers” and by emphasizing the region’s potential, if the former can overcome the latter:

The Middle East today is still marred by the sounds and spectacle of violence, but it need not be, because the region is also pulsating with life. It is the home of populations that are energetic, youthful, forward-looking, and far more interested in plugging into the world economy than in slugging it out with historic foes. It is in them that we place our faith. It is for them, and for their horizons, that we dedicate our collective efforts. And it is with them that the United States of America is determined to turn back the destroyers, and build a future that is characterized by prosperity, by peace, and by dignity for all people. That is a worthy fight.

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.