WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Wednesday passionately defended US efforts to negotiate an end to the civil war in Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Iran’s nuclear program, labeling as “asinine” critics who accuse the Obama administration of appeasing dictators or terrorists.
Kerry’s remarks, in a wide-ranging discussion with print journalists, was the Obama administration’s strongest response yet to conservative critics who say that he and President Obama are “naive’’ in dealing with regimes in Syria and Iran and starry-eyed in working for a Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
“These people who say that it has failed or it is a waste of time, where is their sense of history, where is any knowledge of past peace processes?” Kerry said. “How many years did the Vietnam talks take? How many years did Bosnia [take]? These things don’t happen in one month. It is just asinine, frankly, to be making an argument that after three weeks the talks failed. It’s a process.”
Kerry also said that in protecting US interests internationally he considers it an “obligation” to exhaust all diplomatic alternatives before resorting to the use of military force, recalling his own experience during the Vietnam War as a guide.
The Obama administration has been under fire in recent days by critics in Congress who say a more muscular approach — including more economic sanctions, the arming of opposition forces, or possibly even direct US military involvement — will be required to ultimately resolve a host of intractable problems.
Senator John McCain, a Republican of Arizona and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, last week called Obama the “most naive president in history.”
“The naivete of Barack Obama and John Kerry is stunning,” said McCain, Kerry’s former colleague in the Senate.
McCain, the former GOP presidential nominee who is his party’s leading foreign policy voice, has been a vociferous critic of the administration’s handling of both Syria and Iran. He says the two countries cannot be trusted to live up to any diplomatic agreements.
Kerry on Wednesday spoke at length about the challenge of negotiating an end to Syria’s bloody civil war, which has claimed more than a hundred thousand lives since 2011. While the United States was able to lead an international effort to persuade Syrian President Bashar Assad to give up his arsenal of chemical weapons, the regime, backed by new arms from Russia, has continued to kill rebel fighters and civilians alike.
But Kerry said negotiations still have a chance to work. “Ultimately we got to the table. Over 40 nations came to the table.”
The administration briefly considered bombing Syria in the fall, then backed away amid unease in Congress and among US allies, along with Syria’s agreement to turn over its chemical weapons arsenal.
Concerns that talks were futile were reinforced Wednesday when the Assad regime arrested family members of opposition figures participating in the peace talks.
The report drew a sharp US rebuke. “The United States is outraged by reports that the Assad regime has arrested family members of the Syrian Opposition Coalition delegation to the Geneva II peace talks, designated delegates as terrorists, and seized delegates’ assets,’’ the State Department said in a statement. “We call on the regime to immediately and unconditionally release all those unfairly arrested.’’
In addition to the Syrian situation, Kerry is immersed in the negotiations between Iran and world powers over halting its alleged nuclear weapons program.
One of the loudest critics has been in Israel, where Iran is considered a mortal enemy for supporting Palestinian terrorist groups such as Hamas and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. Some in the hawkish government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu see few options other than a military one to prevent Iran from making an atomic bomb.
But Kerry maintained on Wednesday that the painstaking discussions are making progress and that so far the Iranians appear to be living up to the conditions they agreed to in an interim pact reached last fall — namely, halting the enrichment of uranium in return for permission to sell more oil than permitted by previous economic sanctions.
“We took the initiative and led the effort in order to try and figure out if, before we go to war, there might actually be a peaceful solution,” he said.
Kerry said his approach to Iran is informed by his experience with Vietnam — first as a combat veteran, then as an antiwar protester. Only by first trying every possible diplomatic avenue, he said, can the United States honestly say it had no other choice but to use military force.
“I learned this pretty hard in Vietnam that before you send young people to war you ought to find out if there is another alternative,” Kerry said. “I think that is an obligation we have as leaders — to exhaust all the remedies available to you before you ask people to give up their lives. And that is what we are doing.
“We may not succeed. But if we don’t succeed we will have exhausted the remedies available,’’ he said. “We can look people in the eye and say, ‘Look, we tried everything available to us to find a peaceful solution. It didn’t work. Sorry, [military force] is our only alternative.’ ”
Kerry insisted the Obama administration is prepared to use force in Iran if it has no other choice. “We will still back up what the president has said,” he stressed. “We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.”
Kerry also defended his efforts to foster a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians aimed at establishing an independent Palestine.
“I laugh at people who say it is not going anywhere,” he said. “They don’t know because we’re not talking about where it’s at. They have no clue where our negotiations are, whether they can go anywhere. The fact is it was our leadership that helped to pull that discussion back together.”
On a host of other issues — from China to climate change to ending the war in Afghanistan — Kerry insisted the United States is playing a critical role in furthering global peace.
“We are leading across the globe,” he repeated several times during the round table in his ornate seventh-floor suite in the State Department, with his 9-month-old yellow Labrador retriever, Ben, at his side. “I think there has never been a time in our history where the United States is playing as significant a role in as many places simultaneously as we are today.”
But he expressed concern that the political climate in Washington is not conducive to sustaining that leadership, with cuts to the State Department budget mandated by Congress and calls to curtail foreign aid — especially in the Republican-controlled House, where he asserted some members are “not feeling or seeing how our interests are connected.”
“All of those things diminish our ability to do things,” Kerry said. “The United States is not a poor nation. We are the richest nation on the planet. We are beginning to behave like a poor nation. And I’ve heard the rhetoric: ‘Ahh, I’d rather put the money in here rather than over there.’ It is an easy applause line on the campaign trail.”
Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com .