Terms of Engagement

Rogue Secretary

Is John Kerry the president's attack dog, or is he off the leash?


On last week’s installment of NPR’s "Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me," host Peter Sagal, wisecracking about the Syria news, said incredulously, "John Kerry has become interesting." It’s true. Earlier this week, the secretary of state made an apparently scoffing remark about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s self-evident unwillingness to eliminate his stock of chemical weapons — and thereby unleashed a chain of events which might lead to Assad doing just that, which in turn could save President Barack Obama’s skin. Or produce a fiasco. Or nothing.

Kerry has, in fact, proved to be a vastly more entertaining secretary of state than anyone could reasonably have expected. His predecessor, Hillary Clinton, boasted how many miles she logged (and still likes to), but never appeared to actually accomplish anything. Kerry might not accomplish anything either, but he’s sure trying, above all in regard to a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians, which he appears to believe in with much greater conviction than do the parties themselves. Also, unlike the supremely disciplined Clinton, Kerry sometimes loses his grip on his message, as when he recently reassured skeptical congressmen that the administration’s planned strike on Syria would be "unbelievably small."

On Syria, Kerry seems to be trying to infuse a sense of moral passion not only into hostile or apathetic legislators but into his own very cautious colleagues. While White House officials were responding warily to news of the Aug. 21 chemical attack which led to the death of some 1,400 people, Kerry called it a "moral obscenity," which was exactly the right term. And in remarks in London he conjured up the memory of the Holocaust and Rwanda, which must serve, he admonished his listeners, as "lessons to us all today."

This is not the language on Syria we are accustomed to hearing from President Obama. Until his Tuesday speech, the president had been careful to emphasize America’s national security interests in stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction rather than its moral obligations to prevent mass atrocities. What is much more to the point is that over the last two years Obama has resisted calls, including from his own advisors, to act forcibly to stop Assad’s killing, and has thus chosen to mute whatever horror he might feel at the regime’s atrocities. His national security advisor, Susan Rice, who has often spoken of the obligation to prevent atrocities, nevertheless agreed with him. You don’t compare a situation to Rwanda if you want to convey the idea that acting is not in America’s national interest.

Of course I understand perfectly well that Obama is facing an American public that wishes to hear no summons to action in the Middle East. He recognizes that if he can’t demonstrate that acting in Syria advances national interests he has no chance of gaining support for airstrikes. The problem is, he can’t; it’s just not a convincing argument. The "values" argument for intervening in the Syrian conflict — though hardly straightforward — is a lot stronger. But we now live in an intellectual and political environment in which such claims are treated with derision.

When Obama somewhat reluctantly chose Kerry as his secretary of state, very few people — me included — expected to see the veteran senator go out on such a limb. He was, like Hillary Clinton, a professional politician who understands what the political marketplace will bear. He had spent decades patting the back and gripping the arm of Middle East autocrats. And, true to form, John Kerry blandly congratulated the generals who overthrew Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy for "restoring democracy" (though, to be fair, he became far more critical in the aftermath of their brutal assault on demonstrators). Until 2011, Kerry was the most prominent public figure in the United States calling for an end to the isolation of the Syrian regime.

I asked a number of friends and colleagues of Kerry how they made sense of this apparent contradiction. One State Department official told me, "I’ve been thinking about it for the last few days. There’s a little bit of Holbrooke" — Richard Holbrooke, the late, great American diplomat — "in terms of wanting to be at the center of great events." Kerry, like Holbrooke a product of Vietnam and the Cold War, has the sense both of America’s primacy in the world and of his own. The same sense of moral urgency prompts Kerry’s quixotic quest for peace in the Middle East and his convictions on Syria. He supported military action in both Bosnia and Kosovo. "Kerry’s an interventionist," says a long-time colleague. "He believes in the U.S. righting wrongs when we can." He also has a deeply ingrained comfort level with somber men in dark suits which occasionally blinds him to the demands of the rabble beyond the walls.

Kerry also told me a few years back that he felt liberated by the fact that he knew he would not be president; he could do the right thing without having to everlastingly weigh the consequences. Barack Obama, of course, has no such luxury. Indeed, Kerry’s nonchalance about the political consequences of his words may be making the White House extremely anxious; I was struck by how eager State Department officials were to provide their boss’s version of events, perhaps to respond to the perception that he had slipped his leash.

It is also true that Kerry’s habit of dramatizing and personalizing his job may lead him to neglect everything that doesn’t feel like a supreme crisis. There’s a reason why you haven’t heard anything recently about that "pivot to Asia." The State Department official said that he and many of his colleagues had grown increasingly concerned about their boss’s tunnel vision, and we may hear more of this in the future — but only if Kerry fails to pull a rabbit out of a hat.

You could argue, generously, that he’s already begun to do just that on Syria. A senior administration official assured me that Kerry’s offhand-sounding dismissal of Assad’s willingness to disarm was actually a calculated ploy "to smoke the Russians out." If so, he was ingeniously hiding his handiwork and setting a deus ex machina in motion. Even people like me who have argued for a more robust strike have to recognize that genuine disarmament, implausible as it sounds, has become the best available option. The airstrike President Obama has contemplated would do little if anything to degrade Syria’s killing machine. And if the president goes ahead without congressional approval, he could also bankrupt his remaining political capital.

Obama is now depending on Kerry and his team to negotiate acceptable terms with Russia. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, has said that the United States must forswear airstrikes in advance as the price for Syrian compliance. This is an obvious non-starter, but the senior official says that this is almost certainly a bargaining ploy which Lavrov will be prepared to drop. They will, however, have to ensure that Assad speedily and fully declares his chemical stockpile, allows inspectors to take control of the weapons as quickly as possible, and establishes some kind of safe zone around weapons depots to make the inspection possible. Assad may, in fact, have to order a ceasefire in order to allow the weapons to be transferred out of the country — perhaps by Russia and American soldiers. Whether or not rebels choose to comply is another matter. But all those are very big ifs.

An agreement on removing chemical weapons would be a splendid feather in the cap of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a solid win for Kerry, an immense relief for Obama, and an opportunity for Assad to regroup. It would do very little for Assad’s victims or for the rebels who seek to end his murderous reign. That will still require a stepped-up campaign of assistance to more moderate elements in the insurgency — who in the last few days have finally begun receiving light weapons from the United States — and, eventually, a major diplomatic push to achieve a settlement.

Kerry has been forward-leaning on Syria, as he has been on Middle East peace. He has taken a far more sympathetic view of the rebels than Dempsey has. And it’s not at all clear that Obama or Rice agree with him. For the moment, Kerry seems to have saved the president’s bacon by surfacing the idea of disarmament (though the Russians probably would have announced it instead had he not "smoked them out"). Kerry didn’t really create this high-stakes game, save perhaps inadvertently; but he, too, has a lot invested in its success. It’s not hard to imagine Obama gradually marginalizing his impetuous advisor, as he did in earlier years with Holbrooke. It will be, as Peter Sagal said, more interesting than we expected.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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