John Kerry is a man who likes to talk, but at times doesn’t seem to appreciate the fact that words have consequences.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, our current secretary of state spent most of his career as a U.S. senator. One of the dirty little secrets of American politics is that most senators don’t do much else. They talk to each other, to the media and to their constituents. They can and do say whatever will get them the attention they crave because very little they say is remembered from one news cycle to another.
Some years ago, a Democratic friend of mine and I were trying to round up Senate support for an amendment to a bill that was working its way through a subcommittee chaired by Mr. Kerry, then the junior senator from Massachusetts. My friend knew Mr. Kerry fairly well and before long, we found ourselves having dinner with him and making the case for the amendment.
Mr. Kerry listened and enthusiastically agreed with us. He offered to put out a statement praising what we wanted to do. He did not, however, offer that this good idea on which we all agreed would be acted upon by his own subcommittee.
As we said our goodbyes, I asked my friend why Mr. Kerry didn’t actually seem anxious to help us. “A statement?” I said. “He has the power to make it happen, and all we get is a statement?” My friend was surprised by my reaction. “In his world, ‘a statement’ is doing something. Don’t you realize by now that all senators like John do is talk?”
A senator can talk without worrying much about precision, but secretaries of state live in a very different world. Everything the secretary says is studied by reporters and analysts for friendly and unfriendly governments for clues as to what the government he represents is doing or expects to do. A secretary of state has to speak clearly and precisely, lest other nations misunderstand him and act on that misunderstanding.
Mr. Kerry’s penchant for loose talk is on constant display these days as he careens around the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia, he was asked what he thinks about the controversy in that country about whether women should be allowed to drive. There, women are denied driver’s licenses and even non-Saudi women caught behind the wheel are jailed. When asked, Mr. Kerry quite correctly responded that the controversy was to be solved by the Saudis themselves, but gave the distinct impression that neither he nor his boss really cares a whit about the rights of women in the Persian Gulf kingdom.
That did little real harm, but when Mr. Kerry landed in Israel, the potential consequences of the dangerous imprecision of his words became clear. He appeared on Israeli television to condemn the continued settlement of the West Bank that he and President Obama want turned over to the Palestinians as part of an agreement to establish an independent Palestinian state on Israel’s border. Mr. Kerry threatened the Israeli government and predicted that if the Israelis don’t buckle under, there would be “chaos” and perhaps a “third intifada” that would leave the Jewish state isolated and alone.
His words were meant to pressure the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, but the Palestinians may well have heard them as a sign that the United States will accept a renewal of terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians.
What is now known as the second intifada, or uprising, began in 2000 and went on for five long years, during which time civilian men, women and children in Israel were targeted by Palestinian terrorists. Fully 70 percent of the Israelis killed during that five-year period were civilians.
Mr. Kerry will, of course, be shocked if his words lead to such violence, but the words of one in his position have real world consequences. Decades ago, a man who occupied the office he now occupies made an offhand comment during an interview that precipitated a war in Asia that no one wanted and cost tens of thousands of American lives.
It happened in the summer of 1950, when President Truman’s secretary of state, Dean Acheson, suggested that the Korean Peninsula didn’t fall within what he called the United States’ “defense perimeter.” North Korea took this to mean America didn’t much care what happened in Korea and, as a result, communist troops marched south, precipitating a war that no one, including Mr. Acheson, wanted.
Maybe Mr. Kerry will be luckier than Mr. Acheson. Maybe the Palestinians will realize that as a former senator, his statements should be heavily discounted. But if the chaos he predicted and appeared to threaten in that interview comes to pass, history won’t be kind to him or to the Americans who allow it.
David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.