By John Kerry
For those who say having a timetable on our efforts in Afghanistan is counterproductive, the simple truth is this is our nation’s longest war. We need to put the government and the people of Afghanistan on notice that our present level of involvement will not continue indefinitely. While our withdrawal is ultimately condition-based, conditions will never be perfect, and it is also useful to note that a date certain for withdrawal proved successful in Iraq.
Relations with Pakistan, which is tied directly to our involvement in Afghanistan, remain complicated. Nonetheless, despite our differences and occasional difficulties, we have managed to work together on things that matter, particularly our counter-terrorism efforts. Pakistanis have worked with us in taking on Al Qaeda in the federally administered tribal areas and elsewhere. Our cooperative efforts have not always been smooth but our successes have been considerable. These counter-terrorism battles have made Al Qaeda’s central leadership much less formidable than it was when Obama took office.
The pursuit of bin Laden, downplayed by Mitt Romney – who said he would not “move heaven and earth” to get one terrorist, a naive approach – transformed our national security interests on several levels. It cut the head off the snake, and it put Al Qaeda affiliates on notice that the US was not going to be deterred until the mission of eliminating them truly was accomplished. One of the most dangerous jobs in the world is to be in the upper echelons of Al Qaeda leadership, because the US keeps tracking them down and eliminating them...
For those who question the president’s leadership, they should remember his decision to go after bin Laden. The risks were considerable, and despite reservations from some key advisors, he did what he thought was right... William McRaven, the man-in-charge of the special operations command, said publicly: “At the end of the day, make no mistake about it, it was the US president that shouldered the burden, that made the hard decisions.”
Obama pursued a coherent strategy with the three wars he inherited — Iraq, Afghanistan, and against Al Qaeda. He protected and promoted US interests. He led the effort, ensuring success, working with our allies, traditional and non-traditional. His rhetoric was measured, his goals clear, and his implementation determined. This is in contrast to the more erratic approach of his predecessors.
What’s it all add up to? It’s a blueprint for a foreign policy that proceeds in a steady and thoughtful manner, allowing its adherents to approach a more comprehensive and nuanced agenda, an agenda that promotes American. Ours is a model for leadership in national security that thinks before it acts, allowing us to respond constructively to the dramatic changes in the west Asia. It’s a foreign policy that understands that most change in the world – and certainly lasting change – is home-grown and that we need to support those who share our values and work with those on whom the jury is still out. Democratic foreign policy as defined by Obama is not driven by a singular ideological point of view. It is based on a balance of interests and values and comprehensive understanding of foreign affairs, adopting policies appropriate to the situation, as the president did with Egypt, Tunisia and Libya...
But as David Sanger and others have observed, when important but not less vital interests are at stake, he will act, but preferably by leading a coalition. That was the case with Libya and is the case with Syria, where the administration’s course is measured, offering aid and support, encouraging the opposition to be more organised and inclusive, and charting a course that appropriately reflects the complicated and dangerous situation on the ground. There is no right answer with Syria but as we learned with Iraq, there could be a wrong answer with respect to what to do next, leading to dire consequences. It is unclear what will happen there, but whatever that may be, the US is in a good position to help shape events in a way that will create conditions for a more stable and politically open Syria without Bashar al-Assad.
Bedevilling administrations from Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan on, the question of how to handle Iran will never be easily answered. Right now, it is particularly complicated because of the concern about Iran’s intention to develop a nuclear weapon. The president is committed to preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear weapon state. The administration understands an unwavering policy towards Iran is in the US national interest but also in the interest of our special relationship with Israel. This president has been an unfailing friend to Israel. Israeli leaders from Shimon Peres to Ehud Barak to Benjamin Netanyahu have said as much. The president stands with Israel because it is right, and it is in our interest to do so...
There has been much carping and complaining about Russia and China by the president’s critics. This bellicose rhetoric is all too familiar and tiresome. These nations play a role globally. China in particular is an integral part of the global economy. We have interests, and they have interests. Where there is common ground – like New START and Iran sanctions – we can work together. Where we can’t agree, as is the case with Syria, we pursue our own, independent course.
We are entering a post-9/11 era full of uncharted waters. We don’t know what will happen in west Asia. Big changes will occur in east Asia but what that means for the US, China and other Pacific nations remains to be seen. What will happen with Russia and with Europe and its economic crisis? What can we do to ensure that Afghanistan will stabilise after 2014? What is next on the counter-terrorism front in places like Yemen, Nigeria, Mali, and Somalia? The balanced approach of Obama reflecting American interests but based on our democratic values is what is needed to respond to these tough challenges. We don’t need the simple slogans and conflicted policy positions the opposition offers up. There is too much at stake.
Excerpts from a speech by John Kerry, named to become the US secretary of state, at a party forum, on September 4 in the US