John Kerry has the skill, toughness, and ego to be a great secretary of state. But will the world let him?
I’ve met John Kerry only once. Earlier this year, I was invited to a dinner at the State Department with the secretary and a few others to talk about U.S. options on Syria.
The secretary asked more questions than he answered and didn’t reveal much about the specifics of where he stood. But it was stunningly clear from the direction of the conversation that he believed Washington needed to find a way to do more — much more. I didn’t. And Kerry for sure wasn’t convinced by my Dr. No point of view. I give him credit for including me. But rarely have I encountered anyone — let alone a secretary of state — who seemed more self-confident about his own point of view and not all that interested in somebody else’s.
This sense of self-confidence is the hallmark of the Kerry style of diplomacy. No problem is too big that it can’t be made better. Trying and failing isn’t ideal; but it’s better than not trying at all. And if given enough time and focus — will and skill, too — there’s always a way forward.
Only someone with this kind of can-do attitude would venture into Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy against such extremely long odds; keep pushing for a Geneva conference to end Syria’s civil war with the faintest of hopes of success; and (not or) be bullish on a deal with Iran that has alienated key U.S. allies and much of Congress, too.
Having watched Kerry operate for almost a year now, I’m less interested in an interim report card on his record. It is way too soon for that. What intrigues me more are the trend lines, and specifically what will be required at the end of the day for him to be judged a truly consequential secretary of state, let alone one of America’s best. Perhaps this isn’t his goal. But watching John Kerry — the Energizer Bunny of U.S. diplomacy — I’d be stunned if it wasn’t.
Having worked for and watched a number of his predecessors, I’ve identified at least five elements that need to be present for success. In Kerry’s case, they’re all there, at least on paper. Each has a fairly large asterisk, to be sure. And much will have to break his way to admit him into the secretary of state hall of fame.
Is there real opportunity?
I don’t care how smart, brilliant, or passionate a secretary of state may be, unless the world cooperates, significant success — let alone real breakthroughs — aren’t possible. It’s the interaction between human agency and circumstance that usually defines what happens and doesn’t in international politics.
The notion that secretaries of state — or presidents, for that matter — make their own breaks and luck is true enough, provided there’s enough raw material out of which to fashion success. For all of Henry Kissinger’s brilliance and negotiating skills, had there not been an October 1973 War, there would have been zero chance to for him to produce three Arab-Israeli agreements in 18 months. Had the Soviet Union not been in its last gasps, neither George Shultz nor Ronald Reagan would have been able to pursue successful arms control agreements and end of empire diplomacy. Had Saddam Hussein not invaded Kuwait, James Baker could never have gotten the Arabs and Israelis to the Madrid Conference.
So are there real chances for transformative change in Kerry world? The Middle East is certainly in flux; and that’s where the secretary is spending most of his time. But a lot of motion doesn’t necessarily mean movement that can be channeled into agreements. And one success — an interim agreement on Iran, for example — could actually create other complications, such as alienating key U.S. allies (if my read on Benjamin Netanyahu is accurate), making much more difficult progress with the Palestinians. Indeed, the U.S.-Russian framework accord to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons — seen by most (now that it’s being implemented) as something of an achievement — resulted in bucking up Assad and will likely have negative consequences for the other Geneva accord on Syria the secretary would like to broker. And let’s be clear: even a temporary deal with Iran would be no guarantee that a final agreement will be reached, or that U.S.-Iranian relations are going to be transformed.
Still, Kerry has the kind of running room both abroad and at home that his predecessor never did. Hillary Clinton was constrained by President Barack Obama’s controlling nature, her own risk aversion, and a lack of real opportunities. Kerry’s world may not offer up the kind of opportunities for transformative change along the lines of a dramatic opening to China, Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem; or the collapse of the former Soviet Union. But it may well be a world marked by potential transactions and smaller deals of consequence.
I think Kerry gets this, though it’s hardly surprising that he aspires to much more. That’s fine so long as he doesn’t get carried away and allow rhetoric to outstrip action or to obscure a realistic assessment of what can actually be accomplished. These are traps that Kerry needs to be careful to avoid. His supreme confidence in public leads him too frequently to overdramatize: for example, comparing Assad’s use of chemical weapons to Munich or warning of last chances for Middle East peace and a third intifada should no agreement be reached.
Are you in the middle of the mix?
The Hippocratic Oath also apples to diplomacy: above all, do no harm. But while prudence is critically important in diplomacy, giving yourself a chance to succeed is too. And you can’t do that by just sitting on the sidelines. I hate turning U.S. foreign policy into a breakfast analogy, but it’s true that omelets can’t be made without breaking eggs.
The evidence to date that Kerry wants to cook is pretty clear: negotiating a U.S.-Afghan security agreement; putting together a U.S.-Russian framework agreement to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons; working toward a political solution to the Syrian civil war; gunning for an interim deal with Iran on the nuclear issue; and relaunching Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Granted there’s a lot more process still in these enterprises than real sustainable accomplishment, but Kerry’s in the game. His situation reminds me of the joke about the guy who jumps off the top of a 10-story building. As he’s passing the 5th floor, somebody yells out, "How you doing?" "So far, so good!" he replies.
So are there downsides to being diplomacy’s Energizer Bunny? Sure. You take a lot of heat for being naïve, overextended, too eager for the deal. And there’s always the risk of being taken for granted. A secretary must maintain a certain amount of detachment, creating the mystique of being unavailable and inaccessible. It creates authority. Too many phone calls, meetings, trips and you become part of the political furniture. It took us almost two years to persuade Baker to take up the Arab-Israeli issue. We kept telling him he had to engage; and he kept telling us, "no." And he was right to wait and engage at the right moment. Kerry could borrow a page out of Baker’s book.
Do you have strong partners?
You tell me. Carter and Kissinger had Anwar Sadat. Nixon and Kissinger had Zhou Enlai and Leonid Brezhnev; Reagan, Shultz, Bush 41, and Baker had Helmut Kohl and Mikhail Gorbachev. Today, with the exception of Putin (who’s strong but ornery), Kerry is dealing with either highly constrained partners like Syria’s fractious opposition and Palestine’s Mahmoud Abbas, or politicians like Benjamin Netanyahu and Hassan Rouhani, who are either unable or unwilling to risk much.
Moreover, Kerry has a few silent partners who aren’t at the table. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad are critically
important to his diplomatic efforts, but he has no contact with them and thus not much influence. Successful secretaries of state who achieve consequential things aren’t about one hand clapping. They need partners. The question is whether or not those he’s dealing with are able to make deals, let alone grand bargains. So far the picture is quite mixed. At best, it seems, Kerry has partners who are prepared for only limited transactions. And these will be hard enough to sustain.
Does the president have your back?
In Kerry’s case, this is a fascinating question. So far, Obama — the most controlling foreign policy president since Richard Nixon — has allowed Kerry to get into the middle of the mix in a way he wouldn’t do for Clinton. Up until now, he has dominated; not delegated.
But now the president has no choice. The clock’s ticking down on his second term. There are just too many potential headaches out there that need attention. And he needs a manager. The question is whether or not he’s prepared to take risks on the big issues that resonate politically, or more to the point, to allow Kerry to do so. Obama has his own fair share of domestic problems of late and has been pretty quiet when it comes to big foreign policy questions and the Middle East.
On Iran, the White House appears ready to entertain a good deal of unpleasantness and tension with Israel and Congress in order to get an interim deal with Tehran. On the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, it’s not at all clear. But if the president wants to have even the chance of a deal, he’s going to have to not only empower his secretary of state but step up and own the negotiations himself at the appropriate time. Right now, particularly in view of the U.S.-Israeli brouhaha over Iran, that seems highly unlikely. Obama and Kerry have created a process where decisions on both Iran and peace with Palestine can only overload Israeli circuits. And a weakened president hammered on problems at home by Republicans (and many in his own party) can’t afford to risk blowing too many fuses at once.
Can you pull off a signature achievement?
When it’s all over, the question on which John Kerry’s legacy as secretary of state will rest is whether he’s done something extraordinary. That’s not to say he couldn’t be judged as a fine secretary of state without some extraordinary accomplishment. But to be a truly consequential one, he’d have to take on a problem that normal human beings saw as really tough (and truly important) and make a major contribution toward resolving it. Kerry has the stamina, will, and smarts. And while his extreme confidence and fiery rhetoric worries me at times, I suspect if given the opportunity he’d do well.
But that’s really the point, isn’t it? The basic problem may not be Kerry at all. The mix of factors conspires against him: a risk-averse and weakened White House focused more on a domestic agenda; the absence of strong, trusted partners abroad with which to cooperate; and the cruel reality that each of the major problems he seeks to solve is interrelated is galactically complex ways. I know this comes off like State Department insider rationalization. But it’s sometimes difficult for those without experience in the business to understand how hard it is to get anything done, particularly in the Middle East. This isn’t mindless cheerleading for Kerry; it’s a defense of a reality that many too easily lose sight of.
This is particularly true if Kerry believes that the Arab-Israeli peace process is to be his signature legacy. And given the time he’s spent shuttling between Washington and Jerusalem, it’s clearly the issue he’s most visibly identified with and passionate about. Right now, I don’t see it. An interim deal with Iran will only increase the odds against it if Netanyahu is left isolated, angry, and aggrieved. The peace process was already in trouble. This isn’t going to help.
Maybe the era of heroic U.S. diplomacy, where secretaries of state could tackle huge problems solo, is over. Maybe the era of Hollywood-like diplomatic endings is through. And yet, John Kerry is still trying to play the leading man. I guess we’re still only through the first act: there’s still plenty of time left on his clock for success
… and for failure, too.