On December 28th Secretary of State of the United States, John Kerry, gave a seventy plus minute speech in the Dean Acheson Auditorium, in the Harry S. Truman Building, the seat of the Department of State. (You can find the entire text of the speech here.)
I will not comment on the content of his speech – many have already done so, both in support of what was said and others by pointing out some serious fallacies in the facts of his presentation. There were arguments made by the Secretary that I personally agree with and some that I find reprehensible. It is apparently true that the majority of Israelis agree with the idea of a two State solution, as do I in principal, but going back to President Jimmy Carter’s administration to justify the United Nations abstention was more than just a bit off putting for me for many reasons – not least of which is the fact that Carter was never a true friend. Nevertheless, I believe it instructive to try to understand the man and the reason for his determined, emphatic message.
Kerry’s speech was a long, somewhat repetitive tirade about the many failures of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace process, most that he placed squarely on the shoulders of “right-wing extremist settlers”, but also his own failures that sounded to me more like a “You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone speech.” A quick review of his personal history may provide some insight as to why he made the speech.
Secretary Kerry’s views of conflict resolution were likely formed when he served in the United States Navy during the Vietnam War. He commanded a Swift boat, saw significant action and was awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. The Stars were awarded for gallantry in action and the Purple Hearts for being wounded in battle on three separate occasions. He was a valiant warrior but Kerry was traumatized, as were most Viet vets, by the war, by the destruction that war caused with no positive outcome and by the fact that anyone would doubt his dedication to a just cause when he decided that making the world a better place, by participating actively, aggressively in the political sphere.
Like most Vietnam veterans he came home to a country that was struggling to forget the war and was dismissive of its veterans. Both the trauma of war and the trauma of disbelief from those who have questioned his motivation for trying to be a person dedicated to resolving conflicts may have forever subconsciously hounded him, causing him to focus on the external issues rather than the complexities that lie below the surface.
Somewhere between the intersection of Mr. Kerry’s personal war experiences and his decision to engage in the art of dealing with people in a sensitive, caring and effective way, which is in fact the definition of diplomacy, lies the root justification in his mind for the position he has taken. I know that Secretary Kerry has been accused of being far too liberal and that may be true but that label says little about his intensity and intellectual strengths, both of which are plainly obvious. Yet, he seems to have been betrayed by his own desires to bring peace.
It is hard to bring someone to a peace conference if there is no one on the other side willing to negotiate openly and honestly. The Secretary must know that, and I am sure that he does. But, as a war veteran of a war that caused nothing but destruction, a war that was not won, a war that was marked by retreat – who can forget the last helicopter on the roof of the Embassy in Saigon – Kerry’s position is cemented in his brain as one in which giving in is better than fighting on, particularly if there is nothing more to be gained. “Make love not war” is the underlying motivation. I am sure that Kerry understands that there are evil people in the world but on a one to one basis he may not see it. If Israel gives in without first negotiating, Kerry must truly believe that the Palestinians will also alter their approach and live peacefully with a Jewish and democratic state next door. It is a philosophy of conflict resolution based on life experiences. I would just remind the Secretary to view the CBS video of the fall of Saigon from the perspective of those who sought a democratic life in South Vietnam to see what actually happens when there is retreat.