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“John Kerry Is a Traitor” Is the Republicans’ New Dumb Meme

The latest bad-faith attacks on Biden’s climate envoy show that the GOP is determined to find the next #Benghazi.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

John Kerry has lost Lenny Dykstra. The eccentric former all-star baseball player turned bankrupt investment adviser on Tuesday morning claimed President Joe Biden’s climate envoy has undermined U.S. foreign policy.

“Does anyone actually like #JohnKerry?” Dykstra added, before deploying a deadly sports insult. “Or is he like the A-Rod of ‘public service’?”

Truculent retired athletes aren’t the only ones souring on Kerry this week. Numerous Republican politicians and conservative media personalities have accused him of mishandling classified material and even floated the charge of treason. Although they wither upon examination, the trumped-up claims are a revealing look at how the GOP will operate in the Biden era much as it did in the Obama era: launching bad-faith, base-pleasing, fundraising-friendly media campaigns that paint Democratic officials as enemies of the state. They’re hunting for the next #Benghazi.

The hysteria stems from a leaked interview with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in which Zarif claimed that Kerry once informed Zarif about Israeli airstrikes on Iranian assets in Syria. After appearing in a London-based Iranian exile publication, the comments were picked up by The New York Times, before being seized on by the entire conservative establishment as Swift Boat 2.0, a renewed example of Kerry’s effete perfidy.

The timing of the leak and the subsequent attack on Kerry are important. The Biden administration is attempting to negotiate its reentry into a nuclear deal with Iran, which previously had been Kerry’s signal foreign policy achievement as secretary of state under Barack Obama. If Kerry can be painted as soft on Iran and detrimental toward Israeli policy, the logic seems to go, then the entire Iran deal is suspect, a diplomatic sop to our enemies. It may not fully make sense, but reason has never stood between today’s GOP and a useful political talking point.

This fake scandal is so obviously absurd that even the traditionally conservative Jerusalem Post has published two op-eds casting a skeptical light on it. During the interview in question—which was done for archival purposes as part of an oral history project—Zarif, who’s spent decades in the upper tiers of Iranian politics, claims to be improbably ignorant of his own government’s foreign policy, complaining that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps keeps him out of the decision-making loop. While that’s possible to some degree—the IRGC is a dominant force in Iran—the notion that Zarif was mostly unaware of Iranian or Israeli activities in Syria is preposterous. But that’s what Zarif claimed. “John Kerry informed me that Israel attacked [Iranian positions] 200 times in Syria,” said Zarif, who was then asked if he knew about the strikes. “No. No,” said Zarif.

It’s unclear when Kerry and Zarif might have had this conversation. The two have met for discussions over the years in official and unofficial capacities, at events like the Munich Security Conference and the World Economic Forum, where Kerry reportedly probed Zarif on issues including Hezbollah and Yemen. Kerry denies that this particular exchange ever happened. It may also not matter if it did: In September 2018, an Israeli official publicly announced that Israel had carried out 200 attacks in Syria during the previous two years. While Israel rarely discloses the details of its strikes against Iranian assets in Syria—which continue to this day—they are frequently reported on by regional and Western media. In other words, they’re no secret, especially to the foreign minister of the country being attacked.

There are many ways in which the political press could have approached this leak, which reeks of opportunistic meddling. (The interview’s premature publication has also produced political difficulties for Zarif, a relative moderate in Iran.) But rather than using it as a prompt to debate Israel’s military aggression or the difficulties that arise whenever a U.S. administration entertains diplomacy with Iran, Zarif’s comments are being used by Republican senators to drive the lowest common denominator of political discourse.

“People are talking about treason—and I don’t throw that word around a lot,” Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska told Politico. If the rumors are true, “John Kerry should seriously consider resignation,” tweeted Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn. Kerry should have his security clearance revoked, said Florida Senator Rick Scott, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell used the opportunity to sing the praises of U.S. economic sanctions that have devastated Iran’s economy. “We know that preemptive concessions will not secure a better deal, or make America or our allies more secure,” he said.

Whether Republicans get more media oxygen out of this fabricated controversy will depend in part on the continued credulousness of the Times and other outlets that served up this nothing-burger on a platter for Kerry’s political opponents and now have to report on the he-said-she-said fallout. Still, one can be sure that the GOP will milk any opportunity it can get to portray itself as the true friend and defender of Israel, especially when criticism of the country’s government is rising. This week, Human Rights Watch put out a major report describing Israel as an apartheid state, while John Brennan, Obama’s former CIA director, wrote sympathetically about the Palestinian struggle in The New York Times. However heterodox a pairing, these publications reflect a noticeable shift in how Americans view the Palestinian cause—a shift that Republicans seem ready to seize upon to present themselves as Israel’s last reliable American partner.

This is another effort by America’s nativist party to demonize its enemies because, ultimately, it has no alternative to offer. Successfully negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program was one of the few unmitigated foreign policy successes of the Obama administration, which oversaw disasters from Libya to Yemen, and the Biden administration has wide support among its allies to reestablish the agreement. Israel’s objections to negotiating with Iran are as well known as its supposedly covert attacks on Iranian scientists and nuclear facilities. If the Biden administration can maintain fortitude and perspective, it’ll ignore this disingenuous, defamatory campaign and stick to its policy. But it’s hard not to worry that, even if the GOP’s attacks are roundly discredited, a Democratic administration that doesn’t have the stomach for dirty tricks will at some point succumb to them.