Foot in Mouth Disease

Foot in Mouth Disease

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

There is a cardinal rule in diplomacy that you are given only words with which you can deal. Consequently, all statesmen at all times need to guard what they say. This is true with respect to formal and informal speech; public and private conversations; email, twitter, and all forms of social networking.  In the 21st Century, there is less and less private conversation or protected speech—in the non-legal sense. Microphones; private meetings; overheard off-the record remarks; all enter the public traffic lanes instantaneously. As a result there is no room for error today and no excuses for mistakes. In a world where hand signals and gestures are frequently treated as speech too, diplomats must be held accountable at all times. It also means that there is no room for mistakes. Enter John Kerry and the apartheid contretemps.

To begin with there is no question that many people are suggesting that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians appears to be driving Israel to take a series of steps which may place its policies close to reflecting some of the behavior patterns which were seen in South Africa during the apartheid era. While this analogy is quite flawed, when this theory is coupled with the growing BDS movement—which is also similar to the anti-apartheid movement actions—more and more observers looking for a simple description of what is occurring in the region apparently are prepared to consider Israel’s behavior as more and more approaching that of an apartheid state.

John Kerry’s remarks, at the Daily Beast closed event and their subsequent release, therefore, pose a number of questions. Clearly, his denial and subsequent apology suggest that somewhere in the White House and/or the State Department this thinking is circulating. Regardless, it is ill becoming for a Secretary of State to employ even a qualified usage as he did unless something else was at play here.

Either Kerry was put up to this by the White House or someone on the President’s staff to signal to Israel—after the break-up of the peace negotiations–where some in Washington think Israel’s policies are taking it. Alternatively the President wanted this notion out there and had Kerry play bad cop so Obama can be the good guy. Finally and most troubling is perhaps the Secretary of State just shot his mouth off without considering its ramifications; in which case Kerry may not be up to the job as America’s leading statesman after the President.  

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