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An Uncorroborated, Snoozer of a John Kerry Scandal

Republican outrage over an alleged, ho-hum disclosure of essentially public information raises questions about party priorities.

It’s stuff tailormade to trigger Republican muscle memory. 

There’s John Kerry. There’s foreign imbroglio. There’s the farrago of accusations, all boiled up in mainline conservative ire, with the former secretary of State the perfect foil: pompous, yet bumbling— aloof is the Kerry watchword. And it shouldn’t need saying that such confusion all serves, somehow, to entrench the American status quo in the Middle East. 

One could certainly forgive Republicans, out of power and down on their luck, for playing the hits, that is, conjuring the spirit of ‘04. A New York Times disclosure that Kerry, now a sort of eminence grise of climate policy under President Biden, as a private citizen informed Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, a bugbear of Western Iran hawks, of some ten score of Israeli airstrikes on his country would seem simply manna from heaven for frustrated Republicans living under a popular, likely placeholder president. Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, the notably ambitious chairman of the Republican Study Committee, long a hothouse of conservative thought, called for the former Democratic presidential nominee to resign from his new job. 

Kerry, for what it’s worth, denies the reporting. 

But it would seem savvy for a Republican Party, the electorate of which one peek at the news cycle informs has evidently tossed aside lodestars of decades past (like George W. Bush, like John Boehner), to consider its position. Nothing sentimental here, but realpolitik. It would seem incumbent, especially, for conservative “ideas” men to ponder what a popular rejection of doctrinaire libertarian economics, NAFTA, the Iraq War (as exemplified by the party’s standard-bearer in exile, and its de facto leader), “globalism” if one likes, truly means. 

As tempting as it must be to return the favor — that is, to make insinuations of bigotry and treason at a new president’s team, as Democrats, of course, once credulously treated Trump — one has to assume the ongoing corporate erasure of the party’s core constituents, among many other orders of the day, would be what commands the agenda.  

First, the Israeli strikes in question were essentially public information, or at the very least, not long a secret. The Israeli Defense Forces in September 2018 announced it had conducted 202 strikes on Iranian targets in Syria, even elaborating that it had used some 800 bombs and missiles to complete the task. 

Add in, now that Jerusalem frets anew about a wavering Washington, that bombardment of Iranian holdings is an open, advertised tool of statecraft to cow the regime as it entertains fresh negotiations. The Middle East isn’t for the faint of heart, and that is Israel’s prerogative. 

But such reality raises questions about the Times’ precise wording that the news of the strikes were to Zarif’s “astonishment” (putting aside the notion that Iran’s foreign minister was somehow ignorant of being bombed, or who to blame, in a region short on air forces). If so, Zarif is as out of the loop as Western Iran hawks and whoever in Iran celebrated the leaking of the diplomat’s interview assert. But it is unproven.      

And that’s a point of its own. Notably, Republicans are picking and choosing when to cite the Times. Is it even shrewd for Iran hawks to make central the paper’s reporting when one of their champions, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, was just last summer deplatformed by “the grey lady”?

Next, Republicans will certainly be pressed in the coming months to elaborate on what exactly the endgame of their policy on Iran is. The U.S. has not been a functional party to Barack Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or Iran deal) for three springs now, and Iran’s position in the region has vastly deteoritated under the weight of Trumpian sanctions and the scarring assassination of Iran’s famed general, the hardliner Qasem Soleimani (a Zarif antagonist, if the Times’ framing is accepted). 

As with Russia, the U.S. is running out of things to sanction. Is the goal regime change, on the Iraq model? Iran hawks, including their leading hub — the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies — are squishy on the matter, knowing full well that bombs over Baghdad aged like milk in public opinion. Some, such as Cotton, have openly embraced regime change for years, and have been quietly signaling anew such a position as Biden has put forward alumni of the last Iran deal for key positions in the government. Trump’s personal attorney, the controversial Rudy Giuliani (in the news Wednesday), is tight with Iranian opposition groups and told me in 2018 (the same month of the Israeli strike disclosures) that America should rip off the band-aid and embrace regime change.    

But what if American voters, including most notably Republican voters, don’t want that? There’s early evidence, after Trump’s transgressiveness, that the partisan fever on foreign policy is breaking. More and more Republicans, not just Trump, are backing leaving Afghanistan. Barack Obama is long gone, and the successes of working hand-in-glove with Benjamin Netanyahu (surprising Israeli peace with the Sunni autocracies, just generations ago blood enemies) are conceded by all but ideologues. But, at the end of the day, it would seem to many if not most, that the fall of the regime in Tehran is the responsibility of those in Tehran, not American forces. 

The floor is open for ambitious Republicans to articulate what dealing with the leaders of peripheral foreign powers with whom the country has significant differences looks like, and thus, avoiding war. That is, instead of the Iraq model, the Chad model. When it comes to pass, it will mean the yoke of neoconservatives will finally be cast off in right-of-center circles. It may sound like outrageous stuff, but this is what a party system undergoing a realignment looks like.     

about the author

Curt Mills is Senior Reporter at TAC covering national security, the Biden White House and the future of the Republicans. He has reported for The National Interest, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, Washington Examiner, UnHerd, the Spectator, among others. He was a 2018-2019 Robert Novak Journalism fellow, and has been a fellow at Defense Priorities and the Claremont Institute. He is a native and resident of Washington, D.C.

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