DAVOS, Switzerland: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hit Friday at criticism that the Obama administration's Middle East policy is in disarray, maintaining that the U.S. is actively engaged in multiple ambitious diplomatic initiatives in the region and elsewhere.
Kerry spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, as Syria peace talks were near collapse 265 miles away in Geneva. Kerry rejected what he branded the "myth" of U.S. disengagement. He pointed to active and simultaneous Obama administration efforts to end the crisis in Syria, deal with Iran's nuclear program and broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
"I must say, I'm perplexed by claims I occasionally hear that somehow America is disengaging from the world - this myth that America is pulling back, or giving up or standing down," Kerry said. "In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. This misperception appears to be based on the simplistic assumption that our only tool of influence is our military, and that if we don't have a huge troop presence or aren't brandishing an immediate threat of force, we are somehow absent from the arena."
"The most bewildering version of this disengagement myth is about a supposed U.S. retreat from the Middle East," he said. "You can't find another country - not one country - as proactively engaged, or that is partnering with so many Middle Eastern countries as constructively as we are, on so many high-stake fronts."
No one is "suggesting, least of all me, that the United States can solve every one of the region's problems or that every one of them can be a priority," he said. "But as President (Barack) Obama made clear last fall at the United Nations, the United States will continue to invest significant effort in the Middle East because we have enduring interests in the region, and we have enduring friendships with countries that rely on us for their security in a volatile neighborhood. We will defend our partners and allies as necessary, and we will continue to ensure the free flow of energy, dismantle terrorist networks, and we will not tolerate the proliferation of nuclear weapons."
The administration has been chastised for not having a coherent strategy to deal with fast-moving developments in the Middle East since the revolts that rocked the Arab world began two years ago. The conflict in Syria has gotten worse as extremist groups have taken an increasing role in the fighting, Egypt is struggling to restore democratic rule after a coup that the White House never fully acknowledged, al-Qaida-linked militants have made major gains in parts of Iraq and an agreement to keep a residual force in Afghanistan after international troops depart at the end of the year is stalled.
The criticism has come not only from the administration's political foes in Congress - who are alarmed by the outreach to Iran and suggest that the absence of U.S. troops in Iraq and the failure to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad with military strikes for his use of chemical weapons were signs of weakness - and unfriendly foreign countries. Allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel have joined in the sniping, particularly over what they regard as a reckless rapprochement with Iran.
But Kerry insisted that the administration knew what it was doing when it engaged Iran over its nuclear program. He stressed that the U.S. remains suspicious of Iran even under its new president, Hassan Rouhani, who told the same audience on Thursday that his country wants good relations with the rest of the world and has no desire to develop nuclear weapons.
"While the message is welcome, my friends, the words themselves are meaningless unless actions are taken to give them meaning," Kerry said. "Starting now, Iran has the opportunity to prove these words beyond all doubt to the world" as it negotiates the nitty-gritty of proving its peaceful intentions with world powers and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
"Iran must meet this test," he said. "If it does, the Middle East will be a safer place, free from the fear of a nuclear arms race, and diplomatic engagement, backed by sanctions and other options, will have proved its worth."
On Syria, Kerry said "forceful diplomacy" and not military action was responsible for removing chemical weapons from the country. And, as U.N. mediators tried to bring representatives of the Assad government and the opposition together in Geneva, he said continued diplomacy was the best and most responsible way to end the conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people over the course of three years. An international peace conference on Syria nearly collapsed Friday as the delegations - including an American one led by Kerry - disagreed on virtually every point of a proposal to set up a transitional government.
Some critics of the administration have suggested that Kerry is spending too much time trying to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together and not enough time dealing with more urgent crises.
Kerry said his efforts - including a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Davos earlier Friday - were well-worth the investment of time and energy.
"The reason we're so devoted to finding a solution is simple: Because the benefits of success and the dangers of failure are enormous for the United States, for the world, for the region and, most importantly of all, for the Israeli and Palestinian people," Kerry said.