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Iraq, Syria, Ukraine and Gaza are falling apart and John Kerry's not helping

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(Reuters) - In what is almost certainly his last job in public service, Secretary of State John Kerry is bumbling his way around the world, ricocheting from crisis to crisis. The idea of the last chapter of his biography portraying him as a punch line can't sit well. But is it Kerry's fault, or is he simply being swept up in an American foreign policy in historic disarray?

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America lashed out after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and a decade later has substituted strategic incoherence for idiotic decisiveness. A common meme is that Kerry is at worst a bad actor stuck in an even worse movie, contributing little to lift it up but at the same time not baring any real responsibility for the flick's failure.

There's truth in that, but it misses Kerry's genuine capacity for haplessness. Over decades, this kind of serial failure just did not happen to previous secretaries of state. Not Schultz, not Baker, not Powell, not Albright, not Clinton.

To understand John Kerry's near-unique failures as secretary of state, it is important to look at how a secretary's trips abroad are conducted, and how secretaries in the past have used the State Department to accomplish their goals. I know, because during my own 24-year career at the State Department, I was on the receiving end of many of these visits.

A secretary of state visit is planned in excruciating detail, both by Washington staff (known to insiders as "The Line") and by the embassy on the ground. Short notice just means more people stay up later to prepare. Senior people at State doing this work have likely been in government since the Reagan administration, as Foreign Service Officers are not political appointees, and serve both Democratic and Republican administrations over their careers. "Use the building," the rank-and-file always say to incoming secretaries, "take advantage of the expertise of the six floors below your office." Nobody can know everything.

"Talking points" are a key planning item used to pull in all that expertise. The points ensure a tired and busy secretary does not need to know everything, and neither leaves out something important nor strays from policy. When a superpower's interests - never mind world markets and the possibility of war - are on the line, precision of speech is critical.

An example of Kerry's unintended consequences? An offhand remark by the secretary, less than a year ago, saying that Syria could avoid U.S. airstrikes if they turned in their chemical weapons propelled Vladimir Putin into the role of unlikely peacemaker. He failed to do what most need to be done in a crucial situation - just read the cards.

Another Kerry failing is not using his many deputies to set the stage for his visits. In the spring, Kerry flew out on what was intended to be his signature diplomatic achievement, a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel's announcement a few months later canceling a release of prisoners ended that; didn't anyone arrange ahead of time for Israel's acquiescence? The use of deputies not only lays the groundwork for a triumphant secretarial visit, it prevents such equal-scaled secretarial failures. If things go smoothly with the deputies, great. If talks break down, well, the secretary wasn't directly involved. It is much harder to succeed in the other direction - juniors rarely can get the toothpaste back into the tube. At best the embassy is left scrambling to ensure high-level stumbles don't derail workaday issues.

A secretarial visit has traditionally not been to initiate small steps, but to cap off big efforts; he or she otherwise appears weak, or inconsequential.

But this secretary parachutes himself into each crisis in a game of global whack-a-mole. Iraq tumbles into civil war, and Kerry contributes a short visit, emerging only with empty assurances of unity. Following accusations of election fraud, John Kerry zooms out to Afghanistan to broker a hasty agreement, which now seems headed into crisis. Why is Kerry nowhere to be seen afterward until a new crisis-within-a-crisis, a murdered general, pops up? Because he has been to 36 countries in less than the last eight months, more than one stop a week. Some days seems like Kerry is the only senior official left at State with a government credit card allowing for international trips.

Kerry seems to confuse effort for outcome; the State Department obsessively tracks his travel time as if it was billable hours. His frantic diplomacy (the last two weeks for example, India for 72 hours; Africa Civil Society Forum in Washington, August 4-6; an unannounced trip to Afghanistan; a six-day trip to Myanmar, Australia, the Solomon Islands and Hawaii) leaves him little time to follow-up on past efforts. As the United States finds itself playing catch-up to Putin in the Ukraine and the Islamic State in Iraq, Kerry is literally adrift mid-Pacific.

"At least you know you've made that effort to try to spare lives and to find a legitimate way forward," the secretary said following his most recent failures over Gaza. "That's our job, to try to do that."

"Trying" seems a limited goal for the top diplomat of the world's most powerful nation.

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By Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren spent 24 years as a foreign service officer. The opinions expressed here are those of the author.

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