Is Kerry a Better Secretary of State Than Clinton?

In the last two months, he has reopened talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, negotiated a chemical weapons ban in Syria, found common ground with Russia, and met in a historic sit-down with Iran's foreign minister.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry boards the plane after completing his recent trip to Malaysia. (Jacquelyn Martin/Reuters)

"The big Kerry arm." That's how some of his Senate staff used to describe John Kerry's approach to negotiation. It's reminiscent of what Lyndon Baines Johnson used to do to his Senate colleagues: a little light physical pressure to drive home a point. You can bet that at some point over the weekend the six-foot-four Kerry, who landed in Kabul on an unannounced visit Friday, applied that big arm to the shoulders of the diminutive Hamid Karzai, the often combative and erratic president of Afghanistan, whom Kerry knows well and with whom no one else in the U.S. government seems able to deal.

And not surprisingly, given his recent record, Kerry got some results, inducing Karzai to accept a provisional Bilateral Security Agreement, the long-delayed pact that, if the final issues are worked out and approved by Afghanistan's parliament and council of elders, could well help safeguard the enormous investment of blood and treasure that Obama has made in that country.

Call him the un-Hillary. Unlike his predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Kerry has always relished direct mediation in the world's trouble spots—and the more troubled, the better, aides say. Whereas Clinton, perhaps with an eye to the 2016 presidential race, appeared reluctant to personally take charge of especially hard issues ranging from Mideast peace to a Syrian truce, Kerry has jumped in eagerly. "Every single time a tough problem has fallen into John Kerry's lap, he's gone into it believing that it could be solved, and he of all people could solve it," says a senior administration official. Kerry, the failed 2004 Democratic nominee for president and the son of a career diplomat, is also said to be determined to leave behind his mark as a great secretary of State now that he no longer has political ambitions.

Thus, in the last two months alone Kerry has reopened talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, negotiated a chemical weapons ban in Syria—thus saving his boss, Barack Obama, humiliation over a threatened attack that Congress was about to vote down—found unusual common ground with the often recalcitrant Russians, and met in a historic sit-down with Iran's new foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif.

"It may look like he's playing all positions on the field," says Jonah Blank of Rand Corp., a former aide to Kerry on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "He's tried to engage in a lot of issues, and there are people who say he's spreading himself too thin. But many diplomatic breakthroughs come from simply being in the right place at the right time. Was it lucky that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin took him up on his offer to have [Syrian dictator Bashar] Assad give up all his chemical weapons? Luck-- and hard work."

In that instance, Kerry made a seemingly casual offer to Assad, saying the only way that the Syrian leader could avoid threatened U.S. airstrikes was to surrender his chemical weapons; within hours, Kerry's Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, took Kerry up on the idea and induced Assad to comply. In Afghanistan, Kerry had hoped to persuade the Afghan leader to sign a bilateral security agreement that will not commit the United States to defend Afghanistan against Pakistan, as Karzai was demanding, among other issues. As is often the case with difficult diplomacy, Kerry got some and gave some, getting a pledge from Karzai to grant the United States legal jurisdiction over the conduct of U.S. troops -- a provision that will require a loya jirga to approve it-- while reportedly giving Karzai some general guarantees on the defense question.

Obama had good reason to call on Kerry to drop in on Karzai, which the secretary of State did after filling in for the president at a multilateral summit in Asia because of the government shutdown. Back in 2009, when Kerry was still chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the administration also asked him to talk to Karzai after accusations of fraud in the Afghan elections. Kerry got Karzai to commit to a runoff. The late U.S special representative Richard Holbrooke, in an interview at the time, recalled that Kerry "worked Karzai very effectively, talking to him very personally from the gut. John talked about his own acceptance of the [disputed] outcome in Ohio in 2004, in order to get Karzai to understand there was nothing wrong with getting a second round."

If he succeeds in getting the bilateral security pact approved, Kerry could well save Obama's legacy yet again. Though the president has threatened to leave Afghanistan completely after the planned post-2014 withdrawal if Karzai doesn't accede to the U.S. position – just as he did Iraq-- Obama actually has far more at stake in Afghanistan. Iraq was always, to Obama, a "dumb" war; a conflict that never should have been fought. But after nearly six years of drift under George W. Bush, it was Obama who, in 2009, reclaimed ownership of Afghanistan, launching his own "surge," hiring and firing his commanding generals and ultimately assembling a nearly 350,000-strong Afghan fighting force.

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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