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US committed to engagement in Middle East, Kerry says

Diplomacy, not force, stressed

Gary Cameron/Associated Press

DAVOS, Switzerland — Secretary of State John Kerry hit back Friday at criticism that the Obama administration’s Middle East policy is in disarray, maintaining that the United States is actively engaged in multiple ambitious diplomatic initiatives in the region and elsewhere.

Kerry, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, rejected what he branded the ‘‘myth’’ of US disengagement. He pointed to active and simultaneous Obama administration efforts to end the crisis in Syria, deal with Iran’s nuclear program, and broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

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‘‘The most bewildering version of this disengagement myth is about a supposed US retreat from the Middle East,’’ he said. ‘‘You can’t find another country — not one country — as proactively engaged, or that is partnering with so many Middle Eastern countries as constructively as we are, on so many high-stake fronts.’’

The Obama administration has been chastised for not having a coherent strategy to deal with fast-moving developments in the Middle East since the revolts that rocked the Arab world began three years ago. The conflict in Syria has gotten worse as extremist groups have taken an increasing role in the fighting, Egypt is struggling to restore democratic rule after a coup that the White House never fully acknowledged, Al Qaeda-linked militants have made major gains in parts of Iraq, and an agreement to keep a residual force in Afghanistan after international troops depart at the end of the year is stalled.

The criticism has come not only from the administration’s political foes in Congress — alarmed by the outreach to Iran and suggest that the absence of US troops in Iraq and the failure to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad with military strikes for his use of chemical weapons were signs of weakness — and unfriendly foreign countries. But allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel have joined in the sniping, particularly over what they regard as a reckless rapprochement with Iran.

But Kerry insisted that the administration knew what it was doing when it engaged Iran over its nuclear program. He stressed that the United States remains suspicious of Iran even under its new president, Hassan Rouhani, who told the same audience on Thursday that his country wants good relations with the rest of the world and has no desire to develop nuclear weapons.

‘‘While the message is welcome, my friends, the words themselves are meaningless unless actions are taken to give them meaning,’’ Kerry said. ‘‘Starting now, Iran has the opportunity to prove these words beyond all doubt to the world’’ as it negotiates the nitty-gritty of proving its peaceful intentions with world powers and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Critics accuse America of retreating from the region, which the secretary of state called ‘bewildering.’

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On Syria, Kerry said ‘‘forceful diplomacy’’ and not military action was responsible for removing chemical weapons from the country. And, as UN mediators tried to bring representatives of the Assad government and the opposition together in Geneva, he said continued diplomacy was the best and most responsible way to end the conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people.

Some critics of the administration have suggested that Kerry is spending too much time trying to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together and not enough time dealing with more urgent crises.

Kerry said his efforts — including a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Davos earlier Friday — were well-worth the investment of time and energy.

‘‘The reason we’re so devoted to finding a solution is simple: Because the benefits of success and the dangers of failure are enormous for the United States, for the world, for the region and, most importantly of all, for the Israeli and Palestinian people,’’ Kerry said.

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