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Kerry assails 'factless' environment, defends Obama legacy

January 10, 2017 (Photo Credit: State Department)
WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday warned about the rise of a "factless political environment" in which policy is made on Twitter and said President-elect Donald Trump's "America First" policy could lead to a U.S. retreat from the world. He also lamented a lack of contact with the incoming Trump administration.

At a conference focused on national security and the presidential transition, Kerry rejected criticism that the Obama administration had failed to lead in dealing with world crises. "We've been leading," he said, pointing to the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate change agreement, response to the Ebola virus, strengthening NATO and his own unsuccessful efforts to end Syria's civil war. He said charges that the administration mishandled the Arab Spring revolts against authoritarian leaders were wrong.

"People are not separating a remarkable transformation that is taking place globally from things that we are really responsible for," Kerry said, blasting what he called "revisionist commentary" from critics. "We didn't start the Arab Spring, we couldn't have stopped the Arab Spring. There is no way the Obama administration doing anything would have changed what was happening in those countries."

Tuesday's event at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington is titled "Passing the Baton" and focuses on how the Trump administration will take the reins from President Barack Obama. Obama and Trump's national security advisers, Susan Rice and Michael Flynn, were to appear after Kerry.

With only 10 days left in his tenure, Obama's top diplomat called for a new "Marshall Plan" to help countries in critical regions around the world educate their exploding youth populations and prevent them from being radicalized.

Lack of education and the spread of misinformation, notably online, are serious threats that must be confronted to prevent a rise of "authoritarian populism" that threatens the international order, Kerry said. He accused Russia of mounting a ""horrendous invasion of our democratic process" by interfering in the 2016 presidential election and said such actions must be combatted.

"One of the greatest challenges we all face right now, not just America but every country, is that we are living in a factless political environment," Kerry said. "Every country in the world better stop and start worrying about authoritarian populism and the absence of substance in our dialogue."

He did not mention Trump by name but took a thinly veiled shot at the president-elect's propensity to tweet his views on policy issues.

"If policy is going to be made in 140 characters on Twitter and every reasonable measure of accountability is being bypassed and people don't care about it, we have a problem," Kerry said.

He said he worried that the incoming administration's "America First" slogan might translate into "turning away" from a vast array of challenges the world faces, particularly climate change.

On the State Department's transition, Kerry half-jokingly said it was going "pretty smoothly" because "there is not an enormous amount of it."

He said he had yet to meet Trump's choice to replace him as America's top diplomat, Exxon Mobil chief Rex Tillerson. He said he expects to do so "in the near term" and still believes there is time for "an ample debriefing" before the new administration begins.

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