John Kerry, after more than two years in which he has given the impression of being a secretary of state so understated as to be almost invisible, has suddenly become more assertive both on his own account and in the projection of American foreign policy.

Benjamin Netanyahu US Congress
"The vulnerability of Israel underpinned the tone and content of the Netanyahu speech" Mandel Ngan/AFP

He was one of the causes of Benjamin Netanyahu's diatribe against America in Congress recently, when the Israeli prime minister warned his hosts against their present policy towards Iran. Then, this weekend (15 March), he has asserted that, sooner or later, the West is going to have to negotiate with Bashar al-Assad if it is to resolve the horrific civil war in Syria.

Both of these acts, in relation to two countries that have proved intensely problematical to America, suggest a sudden awakening on the part of the Obama administration. Whether the direction of policy this awakening has prompted is good for America and its allies remains to be seen.

Few friends in the Middle East

America hopes that by allowing Iran to enrich uranium for what it claims are energy purposes, but to a level insufficient for weapons use, it will reduce the level of suspicion between the two countries and enlist if not an ally then at least a neutral power in the Middle East. Iran is a Shi'ite country and those in the Islamic State (Isis) seeking to create a caliphate are Sunnis, so the thinking is logical: if Iran could be made a bulwark against the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, so much the better.

But those who have watched Iran since the revolution of 1979 know that it too has its share of fundamentalists. As Netanyahu said on his visit to America, one is an Islamic State, the other is an Islamic Republic. The differences may be too subtle for the Israelis to appreciate. He made no secret of his, and his country's, fear that if America allows some nuclear programme to continue in Iran, and in return for the country not developing weapons lifts the sanctions upon it, it will leave Israel directly in a very dangerous line of fire.

Democrats who heard him – many chose not to and stayed away from the House when he spoke – deplored his attack on American policy. Republicans lapped it up, because to them it was cast-iron proof of the overseas perception of the flaccidity and incoherence of American foreign policy. America has very few friends in the Middle East, and such as it does have are not always reliable. Governments that claim to support its opposition to the spread of Islamic fundamentalism often run countries whose nationals are open in their support of the Islamic State.

There has been much criticism of the nature of America's relationship with Israel – it has often been said that it is too close, and that America is too uncritical of some of the policies Israel has pursued, notably against Palestinians. Such claims hold little water today.

Pro-Israelis have long attacked Barack Obama's perceived lack of warmth for Israel; and the Kerry stance towards Iran seems to take that policy much further on, in the way that it seems careless of the vulnerability of Israel that underpinned the tone and content of the Netanyahu speech.

Too little too late

Kerry's remarks about Assad are similarly radical: he is talking, after all, about parleying with a man who just a couple of years ago was an international pariah because of the apparently conclusive proof that he had used chemical weapons against his own people. It reminds one of the old adages that once underpinned the superpower's foreign policy: he may be a bastard, but he's one of our bastards.

Iran nuclear programme
"America hopes that by allowing Iran to enrich uranium for what it claims are energy purposes, it will enlist if not an ally then at least a neutral power in the Middle East" Reuters

Netanyahu's complaint was significant in what it said about the public state of relations between Israel and the country that has, since its foundation, been Israel's friend and protector. He will have hoped to mobilise the small but effective Jewish lobby in America to campaign for a more restrictive policy towards Iran.

It is some years since a leading Iranian politician spoke of wiping Israel off the map; the problem is that none of his successors in Tehran have said with any conviction that that is no longer the policy. No wonder Israel thinks that its protector has put the cart before the horse.

However, the recognition that Assad will have to be treated with is a welcome burst of realism by a State Department that has failed for too long to engage with this question sensibly. Once Obama failed to secure sufficient support to intervene militarily against Assad he seemed, whether through embarrassment or boredom, to detach himself from the entire matter. Or it may have been incompetence: the intervention would have had America opposing a man who was also being opposed by the people who masterminded 9/11.

America's approach then suggested the president and the State Department had failed to understand that not all foreign policy can be played out in Hollywood terms of good guys and bad guys – something it used to appreciate in the days of George Kennan and, later, Henry Kissinger.

Maybe it has started to understand it again now, but probably too late to rescue the reputation this administration has as one of the most inept in terms of foreign policy in recent American history.

Dr Simon Heffer is a British commentator and author who has written columns for The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph, The Spectator and The New Statesman. He is the biographer of Enoch Powell, Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Vaughan Williams and recently published High Minds: The Victorians And The Birth Of Modern Britain.