How John Kerry Could End Up Outdoing Hillary Clinton

Critics say he's pompous and reckless—but his relentlessness may end up making him the most consequential secretary of state in years.

Throughout the negotiations that got the parties back to the table, Kerry emphasized that the conversations must remain secret. Revealing the compromises each side made, Kerry told his aides, could create political problems for Netanyahu and Abbas. The smallness of his circle of aides, which had been seen early on as a detriment to his management of the State Department, now made it easier to keep information contained.

“I don’t care about risk, honestly,” Kerry says. “The riskiest thing to do is to not act. I would far rather try and fail than fail not trying.”

Some details did emerge. Working with consultants from McKinsey, diplomats estimated that $4 billion in long-term private investment would flow to the Palestinians in the wake of an agreement. Kerry also won a promise from the Israeli government to ease restrictions on the flow of goods through the West Bank. And Palestinian officials appear to have compromised on their demand for a settlement freeze. From the beginning, Kerry had insisted that the Obama administration not allow a halt in Israeli settlement construction to become a public precondition.

To the Israelis, Kerry also reiterated a core argument: the security that Israel currently enjoys is temporary, if not illusory. Without a two-state solution, Israel will face a European-led campaign of delegitimization, a new intifada, and a Palestinian leader far more radical than Abbas. Events in the region—from the Arab Spring to the disintegration of Syria to unrest in Egypt—not to mention unfavorable demographic trends, made a peace settlement with the Palestinians more important to Israel than ever. Some of Kerry’s arguments seem to have gotten through to Netanyahu. The crucial concession—the release of the 104 prisoners—came from the Israeli side.

State Department aides later told me that what had brought both parties to the table were the dozens of face-to-face meetings that Kerry had with Netanyahu and Abbas, often alone. “It takes time to listen, it takes time to persuade,” Frank Lowenstein told me. “This is where Kerry’s willingness to stay up all night pays off.”


Even while trying to revive peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Kerry hoped to address the Middle East’s other intractable conflict: Syria. But this was an area where the Obama White House maintained iron control of policy making. Since the uprising against Assad began in early 2011, Obama had opposed arming the rebels or taking military action, fearing that the United States would be ensnared in another Mideast conflict. The U.S. provided nonlethal aid to the opposition, but White House officials were so fearful of American assistance inadvertently falling into the hands of jihadists that the National Security Council Deputies Committee monitored the distribution of the aid in granular detail. Qatar and Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, were funneling cash and weapons to hard-line militants, including Al Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate. Among the anti-Assad forces inside Syria, jihadists became more powerful and prominent than Western-backed moderates. Meanwhile, Russia continued providing Syria with arms and blocking any action by the UN Security Council.

One sun-drenched morning in May, Kerry arrived in Moscow in an attempt to change the dynamic with Russia. For a few moments that day, he looked like the telegenic ideal of a U.S. secretary of state: tall, silver-haired, solemn, he stood with statesmanlike dignity behind two Russian soldiers as they placed a wreath on Russia’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Then something went awry. Kerry had been scheduled to meet with President Vladimir Putin right after the ceremony. Instead, he took off on an impromptu tour of Red Square. As puzzled journalists trailed behind (what happened to the Putin meeting?), he ambled around like a tourist, asking questions about Russian architecture and posing for photos. Finally, Kerry entered the Kremlin—only to be kept cooling his heels for 30 minutes before he decided to go back to his hotel. The Russian president, it seemed, was out to humiliate the new secretary of state. When Putin finally received Kerry, after a three-hour delay, Putin reportedly fiddled continuously with his pen and “more resembled a man indulging a long-ago scheduled visit from the cultural attaché of Papua New Guinea than participating in an urgent summit with America’s top diplomat,” as Foreign Policy put it the next day in an article about Kerry headlined “Oh, You Silly Man.”

But Kerry’s patience and willingness to endure humiliation might have paid off. Marathon meetings between Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov ensued that evening. Kerry pressed for Russia to support new peace talks in Geneva between Assad and the opposition. At a late-night press conference, a beaming Kerry announced that he and Lavrov would co-host a peace conference in Geneva.

“I thank my friend Sergey for some terrific work today,” Kerry gushed. “They were great efforts, and again, I reiterate my gratitude to President Putin for a very generous welcome here.”

Within 24 hours, the Geneva meeting was an international joke: Israeli officials disclosed that Russia was selling advanced missiles to the Syrian government.

Back in Washington, Kerry fought a losing battle with a cautious White House. In National Security Council meetings, Kerry repeatedly argued for the U.S. to begin arming Syria’s rebels, according to White House officials. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, was deeply skeptical of any military option. So was Obama. Earlier, in April, after American intelligence officials had confirmed that Assad had carried out several small-scale chemical-weapons attacks, Obama had reluctantly agreed to mount a covert CIA effort to arm and train moderate rebels. Even then, the effort was minimal and slow. For months, no U.S. weapons reached the opposition. In June, according to The New York Times, a frustrated Kerry arrived at a Situation Room meeting bearing a State Department document with a warning. The document said that the Syrian opposition was in disarray, that aid from Iran had allowed Assad to gain the upper hand in the conflict, and that if the United States did not “impose consequences” for Assad’s use of chemical weapons, the Syrian leader would see it as “a green light for continued CW use.” But the White House did not alter course.

Chilling videos of the August 21 sarin-gas attack in Damascus finally changed the dynamic. Both Obama and Kerry favored a military response—air strikes—according to a senior administration official. As American intelligence agencies accumulated evidence suggesting that Assad was responsible, Kerry offered to make the public case for strikes. White House officials welcomed the idea and vetted his speeches.

“Let me be clear,” Kerry said in the first of two blistering speeches that week. “The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons, is a moral obscenity.”

On Friday, August 30, Kerry gave a second speech detailing the rationale for air strikes. That night, he and other Cabinet officials were told that Obama had decided to ask Congress to authorize a strike against Syria. Ever the good soldier, Kerry supported Obama’s decision, appearing on five Sunday-morning talk shows and testifying before Congress twice. But he failed to shift congressional or public opinion. As a growing number of senators and representatives announced their opposition to a strike, Obama talked with Putin at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg on Friday, September 6, but no breakthrough was reported.

Obama flew home to a skeptical Washington, while Kerry flew to Europe to try to muster support for strikes. He failed. At his final press conference of the trip, in London, Kerry was asked whether there was anything President Assad could do that would stop an attack.

“Sure,” Kerry said. “He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”

Once again, Kerry had seemingly wandered off script. As Jen Psaki drove to the airport with Kerry, she e-mailed reporters a statement downplaying his proposal. “Secretary Kerry was making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used,” Psaki wrote. “His point was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts cannot be trusted to turn over chemical weapons, otherwise he would have done so long ago.”

While Kerry was flying home over the Atlantic, Sergey Lavrov called him to say that Russia was interested in taking him up on his offer, and turning Syria’s chemical weapons over to international control. After the call, Lavrov and Syria’s foreign minister announced in Moscow that the two governments had agreed that Syria would hand over its chemical weapons to UN inspectors. By the time Kerry landed at Andrews Air Force Base, White House officials, seeing the Russian offer as a way out, had embraced it.

Three days later, Kerry and Lavrov met in Geneva and worked out the details. Two weeks after that, they came to terms on a UN Security Council resolution to enforce the agreement. A plan that Obama and Putin had first secretly discussed 15 months earlier, at a previous G20 summit, in Los Cabos, Mexico, in June 2012—that Syria would relinquish its chemical weapons—had come together in a matter of days.

During Kerry’s marathon meetings in Moscow in May, he had secretly discussed the idea with Lavrov, but the Russians had not seemed serious about it. After the August 21 sarin attack made a U.S. strike seem likely, the idea that Russia might pressure Syria to hand over its chemical weapons reemerged. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu suggested it to Kerry in private. Several days later, Kerry again talked to Lavrov about it. And at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Putin brought up the proposal in his conversation with Obama. But American officials worried that the Russians were simply trying to delay American strikes. Without receiving White House approval, Kerry floated the proposal publicly in London.

“Did I go out there planning to say that at that moment?,” Kerry said to me. “It wasn’t my plan to announce it—but we were working on it.”

“It was not an unguarded statement,” he added. “It was a purposeful statement.”

I asked him whether the Russians had outmaneuvered him by using the chemical-weapons agreement to derail American strikes. Kerry said no, arguing that the reverse was true: the administration had used the threat of strikes to pressure the Russians into forcing Assad to give up the weapons. “I said to [Lavrov], ‘Look, Sergey, this can’t be a delaying game. There can’t be any games at all. We’re not gonna be halfway about it. We have to get this done and know it’s real immediately.’ And he responded very rapidly and forthrightly and said, ‘Yes, it is real—we want to do this.’ ”

In Geneva, American officials were shocked by how unprepared the Russians were for negotiations. This allowed the U.S. to dictate the terms of an agreement, one senior State Department official told me. “They didn’t have a clue how they were going to proceed,” he said. “They were really flying by the seat of their pants.”

For Kerry, the chemical-weapons agreement was an important victory, but only an interim one on the way to a larger peace settlement. (For months, he had pushed for U.S.-led air strikes in Syria that might change the military balance and pressure Assad to negotiate.) Assad doesn’t need chemical weapons to crush the opposition. Thus, in the view of some foreign-policy analysts, the chemical-weapons agreement merely allows Assad to fight another day, with continued support from Russia. Kerry dismisses these arguments, saying the agreement has laid the groundwork for a new round of Geneva talks that could finally bring peace.

The Case for Activist Diplomacy

As the catalyst for jump-starting moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Kerry has generally been able to operate as he sees fit, driving the strategy and making important tactical decisions without interference from the White House. In contrast, though he met face-to-face with Sergey Lavrov 11 times in nine months, Kerry’s talks with Russian officials have been tightly controlled by the administration. (The same is true of Kerry’s conversations with the Iranians.) While Kerry and Lavrov have clearly developed a good working relationship, their bosses in the White House and the Kremlin are the ones deciding what agreements, if any, the two countries will make.

Ben Rhodes, the deputy national-security adviser, says Kerry’s performance so far has boosted Obama’s trust in his new secretary of state. The president “is invested in John Kerry as his principal representative on the biggest issues that we’ve got going,” Rhodes said. “You can measure the trust that the president has in Kerry by the role that Kerry plays in the defining issues of our foreign policy. He’s got a degree of comfort.” (For his part, Kerry lauds Obama in public and in private, and betrays absolutely no sign of resentment at how tightly the White House controls foreign policy.)

In my conversations with him, the secretary of state resisted requests to outline the “Kerry doctrine” of foreign affairs. “We don’t live in an easy-doctrine world right now,” he said. “We live in a world that is more like the 18th and 19th centuries, not a classic Kissingerian balance of power.”

He did, however, outline an ambitious vision for how diplomatic breakthroughs might transform geopolitics. Kerry said that success at two, and perhaps even just one, of the major diplomatic initiatives now under way—the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the negotiations with Iran about its nuclear program, and the discussions with Russia about ending Syria’s civil war—could radically change the Middle East.

“Look, stability—peace and stability—change a region,” Kerry told me in October. “My vision is that, if you can make peace, if you can get Israel and Palestine resolved and can get the Iranian threat of a nuclear weapon put to bed appropriately—even if Syria didn’t calm down—if you get those two pieces or one piece of that, you’ve got a hugely changed dynamic in a region that is in turmoil. And if you take just the Palestinian-Israeli situation, you have the potential to make peace with 57 nations—35 Muslim nations and 22 Arab nations. If the issue is resolved, they will recognize Israel.”

He went on to say that a prerequisite to achieving economic growth in the Middle East is a reduction in tension. “These countries desperately need economic development, jobs,” he said. “Because they’ve got masses of young people coming into the job market who can’t find anything and are looking at radical Islam.”

Kerry believes that simply getting the different sides to begin talks can produce unexpected dynamics. “It’s like Dayton”—the talks that brought peace to Bosnia in 1995—“or the Vietnam peace talks,” he told me. “You have to get to the table, and you have to begin a process to make something happen.”

Managing diplomacy today, Kerry says, is far more difficult than during the Cold War. Technology, jet travel, and a globalized economy make it possible for terrorists in a remote corner of Pakistan or Syria to plan a terrorist attack in Times Square. Moreover, hyper-partisanship in this country, along with a 24‑hour news cycle, complicate diplomacy. “No world power has ever tried to manage affairs in this particular circumstance,” Kerry told me. “The cycle of news, the cycle of crises, the complexity of grievances in increasing numbers of failed and failing states.” In addition, the United States’ fiscal challenges limit the tools at Washington’s disposal. “Our own budget challenges hugely complicate decisions,” he said.

As befits the former Vietnam protester, Kerry opposes open-ended American military interventions. Touring southern Afghanistan and seeing American soldiers patrolling villages reminded him of the folly of Vietnam. His aides say his models for the American use of force abroad are Bosnia and Kosovo, not Afghanistan. But Kerry also believes that American disengagement would be foolhardy. He thinks it would lead to power vacuums and failed states in the Middle East and North Africa, where terrorist groups can organize. Jonah Blank, who worked for several years as a senior staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under Kerry, says that the “idealistic Kerry,” who came of political age believing in John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and “wanting to make America a beacon for the world,” coexists with the chastened “post-Vietnam Kerry,” who is clear-eyed about what can happen when the U.S. intervenes abroad.

Many times while reporting this story over the past several months, when I would tell Middle East experts or foreign-affairs journalists what I was working on, they would immediately dismiss Kerry’s efforts. He’s being used, if not hung out to dry, they said, by the White House, which happily allows him to continue at his frenetic pace, because it enables Obama to look like he’s seriously engaging in the Middle East, when in fact he’s not.

But what if the very grandiosity and ambition that make Kerry so insufferable to some journalists and senators allow him to achieve diplomatic breakthroughs in the region? When I asked a respected American diplomat whether Kerry’s activist tendencies were simply driven by his ego, he laughed and said all secretaries of state dream of winning the Nobel Peace Prize. “These are not normal people,” he told me. “These are all bigger-than-life people because this is a job that is bigger than life.” This official, who has worked extensively with Kerry, called his activism “a breath of fresh air.”

The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks could founder. Assad could continue to slaughter his opponents with conventional weapons. Iran, after using negotiations to forestall an American or Israeli military strike, might announce that it has completed the building of a nuclear weapon. Unforeseen events could create greater challenges. And Kerry’s fierce desire for visible success might compel him to allow parties to sign small-bore agreements that provide cover for our adversaries rather than truly historic compromises that stabilize the region.

But Kerry grasps the Middle East’s central challenge: a looming demographic explosion that will cause instability to metastasize unless economic growth is radically accelerated. His activism is not the neoconservative sort, nor even the sort typically associated with liberal interventionism; he is not proposing to transform the region through ground invasions or revolution from afar, and he is generally wary of even limited military engagement. But patient, opportunistic diplomatic engagement—days, months, and years of listening and cajoling, leveraging and negotiating—is another matter. If adversaries can be brought to the negotiating table and given clear incentives, then dynamics can change, and salutary developments might occur. Or so the secretary of state believes.

Kerry’s vigorous diplomacy may be driven by arrogance. It may be driven by idealism. It may be driven by having nothing left to lose. And of course it may fail. But the status quo in the Middle East is leading only toward chaos, if not cataclysm. Haven’t we reached the point where assertive, risk-taking diplomacy is called for?

Presented by

David Rohde, a columnist for Reuters, is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. His most recent book is Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East.

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