John Kerry’s Bumbling Performance Regarding East Asia

Secretary of State John Kerry seems to be suffering a case of foot-in-mouth disease before and during his current trip to East Asia. We had already learned to be wary of his judgment on substantive foreign policy issues. He was, for example, an enthusiastic proponent of U.S. military intervention in Syria, a move that would have mired the United States in yet another expensive, futile war in the Muslim world. Fortunately, intense congressional opposition and a timely Russian diplomatic initiative spared the Obama administration from its own folly—at least for the time being.

But whatever challenges might exist when handling difficult foreign policy issues, one should be able to expect a secretary of state not to mangle basic facts about key countries and regions. Alas, that expectation is apparently erroneous when it comes to John Kerry. During a press conference in Washington prior to his departure for East Asia, he emphasized Washington’s support for Japan’s position regarding the bitter dispute with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. Unfortunately, Kerry’s credibility became somewhat suspect when he initially placed those islands in the South China Sea (the arena of territorial disputes involving China and other neighbors).

Matters got worse when he traveled to South Korea. During a press conference in Seoul, a reporter asked him about the long-standing territorial dispute between Tokyo and Seoul over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands in the Sea of Japan. The audience was astonished when he appeared to signal a major shift in U.S. policy by stating that the U.S.-South Korean mutual defense treaty covered those islands. Such a position would place the United States on the side of South Korea against Washington’s principal ally in East Asia, Japan.

A State Department spokesman had to scramble later to rectify Kerry’s verbal gaffe, insisting that the Secretary apparently had misunderstood the question, believing it had referred to the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute. One problem with the revised version of events is that South Korea is not a party to that controversy; as noted above, it’s a feud between Japan and China.

Unfortunately, Kerry’s blunders are indicative of widespread problems in President Obama’s foreign policy team. The president appointed Caroline Kennedy to the crucial post of ambassador to Japan, although her knowledge of Japan (or foreign policy in general, for that matter) is exceedingly meager. Other ambassadorial appointees have embarrassed themselves in Senate confirmation hearings, displaying little or no knowledge of the country to which they would be assigned. In some cases, their principal qualification for the diplomatic post appeared to be their record in raising funds for President Obama’s election campaigns.

The American people have every right to expect a better performance from individuals who are tasked with running the foreign policy of the United States. And that expectation should start with Secretary Kerry.