Oops: John Kerry Gaffes, Washington Backpedals

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Jason Reed / Reuters

Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a meeting with staff at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad August 1, 2013.

John Kerry’s week began on a high note, with the resumption of Middle East peace talks after months of dogged effort on the Secretary of State’s part. But it’s closing on a more awkward one, as officials in Washington clean up after two apparent gaffes Kerry made in Pakistan yesterday.

The gaffes came in different flavors. One amounted to wishful thinking about American policy on drones. Another articulated U.S. policy towards Egypt with a bit too much candor.

First was Kerry’s answer to a question from a Pakistani reporter about America’s ongoing, and extremely unpopular, drone campaign in Pakistan, in which he suggested the drone strikes might be about to stop:

“I think the program will end as we have eliminated most of the threat and continue to eliminate it,” Kerry said. “I think the President has a very real timeline, and we hope it’s going to be very, very soon.” Was Kerry announcing a dramatic policy shift? Nope. Within hours a State Department spokesperson had walked back his comments, saying: “This was in no way indicating a change in policy…. I have no exact timeline to provide.”

(This, by the way, wasn’t the first time Kerry has spoken in somewhat wishful tones about drone program, says the Council on Foreign Relations’ Micah Zenko. In late May, Kerry declared that “the only people that we fire on [with drones] are confirmed terrorist targets at the highest levels after a great deal of vetting.” To which Zenko replies: “That’s not true.”)

More consequential was Kerry’s explanation of why the U.S. has tolerated the Egyptian military’s ouster and arrest of president Mohamed Morsi in an event the Obama administration has artfully declined to call a coup.

“In effect, they were restoring democracy,” Kerry said. “The military was asked to intervene by millions and millions of people.” Noting that that Egypt’s generals have installed civilian rulers to manage a political transition, Kerry added: “The military did not take over, to the best of our judgment — so far.”

Other Obama officials have cited the street protests to justify their refusal to declare that a coup occurred last month. Kerry’s line about “restoring democracy” broke new ground, however, and provided a surprisingly strong signal of support yet for Egyptian General Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and his military colleagues — notably on a day when the Senate had debated whether to cancel U.S. aid to Cairo. (An amendment to do so failed yesterday.)

But it appears that Kerry was freelancing. “He did not stick to the script,” a source identified only as a U.S. official told the Wall Street Journal. (A State Department spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.) The comment has further antagonized a seething Muslim Brotherhood–a group for whom U.S. officials have no love, but whom Washington is trying to dissuade from violence and urging to re-engage with the political process.

“Does Secretary Kerry accept Defence Secretary [Chuck] Hagel to step in and remove [US President Barack] Obama if large protests take place in America?,” a Brotherhood spokesman asked in a statement. “Will the US army freeze the constitution and dismantle Congress and [the] Senate? Can they appoint a president that they solely choose?”

It’s essential that a Secretary of State speak with extreme discipline about U.S. policy abroad. Hillary Clinton was virtually flawless on this score. It’s possible that the Obama White House will remind John Kerry of that upon his return to Washington.