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Such a mixture of sense and nonsense in Secretary of State Kerry’s remarks on U.S.-Russia relations during last week’s appearance on Meet the Press. Unless this confusion is somehow resolved, American foreign policy will never be able to carry out its core mission of safeguarding the nation’s security, prosperity, and freedom without incurring excessive cost and risk. In fact, this muddled thinking is likeliest to leave the American people — and possibly much of the rest of the world — worse off on both scores.

On the “sense” side: Kerry’s unwillingness to accept host David Gregory’s invitation to supply “ a clear moral conclusion [sic] about the regime of Vladimir Putin” or to declare recent weeks to be “anything other than the lowest moment between the United States and Russia in the post-cold war environment.”

Kerry was right to respond by stressing the uselessness of “just throwing names at each other and making declarations.” Of course it’s a message he needs to do a much better job sending to his boss in the White House and to his envoy to the United Nations. Kerry also valuably reminded Gregory and viewers that Washington and Moscow had been cooperating to some meaningful extent on important matters like preventing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons capability and depriving Syria of (at least most of) its chemical arsenal.

But Kerry was repeating a mistake all too common in American diplomacy if he was implying that Washington needed to restrain its response to Russian moves in Ukraine in order to secure and preserve such Russian cooperation. The idea of “linkage” has been touted by no less than Henry Kissinger. But it’s based on the almost childish belief that countries make major policy decisions like these even if they are irrelevant or contrary to those countries’ interests.

That is, Putin’s cooperation on Middle East issues hasn’t stemmed from Putin’s desire to do either the United States or the causes of world peace or even regional stability a favor. The cooperation first and foremost reflects Putin’s views of what’s good for Russia. The moment that analysis changes, cooperation is likely to vanish.

At the same time, Putin’s definition of Russian interests is America’s best guarantee that whatever supportive course he’s taking will be maintained. It also importantly frees Washington unhesitatingly to pursue its own interests elsewhere in the world no matter how many Russian feathers get ruffled (as opposed to major interests that are threatened).

Meanwhile, totally baffling from the standpoint of logic, common sense, and spin alike was Kerry’s answer to Gregory’s question, “What is the threat that [Putin] and Russia present to the United States and to The West?” In other words, what specific U.S. interests is Putin endangering?

Responded Kerry, “It’s not a question of the threat that they present to The West, David.”

At which point, the American people and the entire world (including the Kremlin) are all entitled to ask “Huh?” Was Kerry acknowledging that the Ukraine conflict won’t jeopardize America’s security or prosperity or freedom? It’s hard to interpret his statement any other way. And if this is indeed how Kerry, at least, views Russia’s Ukraine policies, why on earth is he spending so many of his waking hours on the subject? Not to mention American tax dollars? Was this a signal that he and President Obama really are serious about their determination to uphold “international norms” and “21st century rules” and other fantasies whether America’s fortunes are significantly affected or not?

What Kerry and the President urgengly need to underatand is that there is at least one pillar of longstanding diplomatic wisdom that’s indisputably correct: Wholly needless international conflicts can all too easily result from miscalculations. Until Kerry and President Obama start doing a much better job of identifying key American objectives and goals precisely, and spelling out the consequences for opposing them, the chances of accidental war can only rise.