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Jason Reed, Pool | Associated Press
Secretary of State John Kerry steps aboard his aircraft in Geneva, Switzerland.

Kerry's flights of fancy

Diplomat's vision for Mideast ignores realities


Imagine a world in which the Mideast is not descending into carnage and chaos but is on the brink of a monumental series of breakthroughs. In this world in spring 2014, Iran's nuclear program has been secured and Egypt has become a liberal democracy. Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has stepped aside. And, not least, Israelis and Palestinians have settled on terms for a Palestinian state.

This is the world that John Kerry inhabited as he shuttled across the world last week: a fantastical realm created by his billowing vision of what he can accomplish as secretary of state. Meanwhile, on this planet, aid agencies reported starvation and an outbreak of polio in Syria; Egypt's last elected president was put on trial; Israeli and Palestinian leaders described their U.S.-brokered peace talks as broken; and France's foreign minister suggested the would-be accord with Iran was "a fool's game."

Call it Kerry's Magical Mystery Tour. On Nov. 3 in Cairo, he announced that "the road map (to democracy in Egypt) is being carried out to the best of our perception," after failing even to mention the politicized prosecution of deposed president Mohammed Morsi.

On Tuesday, Kerry offered the following explanation of why the Syrian peace conference he's pushing will succeed: "The Assad regime knows full well that the purpose of" the conference is "the installation of a provisional government." And "the Syrian government has accepted to come to Geneva." It apparently follows that Assad will show up and placidly agree to hand over power. If not, Kerry ventured, "the Russians and the Iranians ... will make certain that the Syrian regime will live up to its obligation."

Kerry's next stop was devoted to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Said Kerry: "I am convinced from my conversations" with them "that this is not mission impossible; this can happen."

All this was all before his weekend trip to Geneva for what became a failed attempt to close a deal with Iran on its nuclear program.

Stipulated: The mission of the U.S. secretary of state is to tackle big problems diplomatically, even if it means taking on missions impossible. Still, it's hard to think of a previous chief of Foggy Bottom who has so conspicuously detached himself from on-the-ground realities.

This raises the question: Does Kerry believe his rhetoric? It appears he does, particularly on the Israeli-Palestinian account. Desperate for a legacy, he has convinced himself that a. the terms for a settlement are readily apparent and b. he has the political skills to convince Netanyahu and Abbas to accept them. Kerry, like Barack Obama, also is convinced that detente has all along been possible between the United States and Iran, if only the right people (like him) are at the table.

Other Kerry stances are the logical result of Obama's decision to radically retrench U.S. policy. Obama decided at summer's end to restrict U.S. activity to "core interests" that don't include the defense of democracy, preventing humanitarian catastrophe or ending "someone else's civil war." That means that Kerry, who once pushed to arm the Syrian opposition as a way of "changing Assad's calculations," is left with little recourse other than to plead with Russia and Iran to accomplish what the United States will not.

Faced with Obama's dictum that U.S. cooperation with Egypt's military will continue, Kerry must pretend that the generals are installing a democracy and pray that they take the cue.

If any of Kerry's dreams comes true, the world would be better off, so I hope skeptics like me will be proved wrong. If not, this secretary of state will be remembered as a self-deceiving bumbler – and his successor will have some large messes to clean up.

Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor of the Washington Post.