John Kerry had had enough. Before him, in Davos, Switzerland, sat a dazzling assembly of bankers, brainiacs, and billionaires, airing the usual gripes: War-weary, racked with internal discord, and full of self-doubt, the United States of America appeared to be withdrawing from the world. Especially from the Middle East. The secretary of State's response was an angry rhetorical blast. ("It was personal," a senior aide says. "He was fired up.") Staring down the crowd, Kerry declared that "nothing could be further from the truth." American diplomacy was, in fact, "as broad and as deep as at any time in our history." He added: "You can't find another country—not one country—as proactively engaged with so many Middle Eastern countries as constructively as we are on so many high-stake fronts."
It might be more accurate to say that you can't find another person who's as engaged. Now 70, an old political warhorse with a lifelong thirst for greatness and nothing left to lose, Kerry is romping around the Mideast like a man on a mission. One year into his tenure, Kerry is well on pace to become the most-traveled secretary of State in history, with 320,961 miles logged. That far surpasses the annual distance traveled by his perambulating predecessor Hillary Clinton, who went a mere 206,799 miles her first year (though she made it to 44 countries, while Kerry's gone to 39). And Kerry desperately wants word of America's ultra-engagement to get out: Last week's Davos speech came out of a heated strategy session on Jan. 7 with his senior staff, aides say. "We want to counter this idea that there's a Middle East pullback," Kerry said then. "I want this to be a major strategy." Says his senior aide, "It's what I heard from him over and over—that we're not getting the credit."
Now 70, an old political warhorse with a lifelong thirst for greatness and nothing left to lose, Kerry is romping around the Mideast like a man on a mission.
Yes, John Kerry seems to know exactly what he wants. Whether his president, much less the rest of Washington, is fully behind him is another matter. Despite President Obama's repeated endorsement of "American diplomacy" in his State of the Union speech—and Kerry's best efforts to ensure that no one detect any daylight between him and his boss—the secretary of State seems oddly out of place in this second Obama administration. It is largely a difference of attitude. By the accounts of friends and colleagues, Kerry is fearless and full of hope about remaking the world's most troubled region—to a fault, say his critics, who think he's out of touch with reality—while Obama seems somewhat weary of the world and partly in a defensive crouch against the dangers of failure. While Obama leans toward minimal engagement on the most volatile global issues, continually reminding Americans that he was "elected to end wars" and to "nation-build at home," Kerry stands for a whole new level of American engagement abroad. Again and again, with aggressive personal mediation, he has piloted the U.S. ship of state straight into the jaws of seemingly intractable issues, much as Navy Lt. Kerry once turned his swift boat directly into a Vietcong ambush in 1969 (surprising his assailants and earning himself the Silver Star).
And he's making substantial progress: the first-ever partial freeze of Iran's nuclear program; a historic chemical-weapons ban in Syria; and, against all odds, imminent action on a final-status framework paper for the Israelis and Palestinians that even a skeptic such as Aaron David Miller, a longtime Mideast negotiator, says "would simply not have been possible without Kerry."
Kerry's top aides, of course, say this is all at Obama's behest. And indeed the president has long been trying to demilitarize U.S. foreign policy and "move off a permanent war footing," as he said again in this week's speech. Kerry is his main instrument. A savvy inside player in Washington and the son of a career diplomat, Kerry is also hyperaware of what happens to a secretary of State who gets out ahead of what Dean Acheson called his "constituency of one." When aides refer to "your policy," Kerry is always careful to correct them, saying, "the president's policy." For the last five years, this has been largely true: Obama has been the stern author of his administration's approach to the world. But Kerry has much more freedom to act than Hillary Clinton did. "He is operating in a fundamentally changed environment," Miller says. "In the first term, Barack Obama was the most controlling president since Richard Nixon." Now, with only three years to go, and beset with the lowest approval ratings of his presidency, Miller says, "Obama is far more focused on the middle class than the Middle East.… He cannot dominate; he has to delegate." What may cause tension between them is that "unlike his boss, Kerry actually believes in the power of diplomacy," Miller adds. The White House disputes that characterization, but when it comes time to cut controversial, possibly politically toxic, compromises with the Iranians, Syrians, Israelis, or Palestinians, Miller asks, will Obama "have Kerry's back?"
As 2014 ushers in deadlines for the critical, potentially world-transformative negotiations that Kerry has set in motion, there may be a subtle shift in influence inside the Obama administration. Because each of these talks now has a life of its own, it is increasingly likely that the White House will be following Kerry's lead, for better or worse, rather than the other way around.
Exhibit A: Syria. From the beginning of the horrific civil war that has taken more than 130,000 lives, it was clear that the president has wanted a minimal U.S. presence in Syria, save for humanitarian aid, and that to him any hope of getting Bashar al-Assad out through a larger U.S. intervention was "magical thinking," as he recently told The New Yorker. It was also clear that Kerry thought this was the wrong approach. Upon taking office, the secretary of State obliquely criticized the president for his timidity on Syria, saying the administration was "late" in helping the once mostly secular rebels against Assad. Kerry also told Congress that "one of the reasons Assad has been using [chemical weapons] is because they have, up until now, made the calculation that the West writ large and the United States particularly are not going to do anything about it."
Last summer, when evidence mounted that the Syrian regime had indeed used chemical weapons, Kerry eagerly went in front of the cameras to condemn Assad as a "thug and a murderer" who faced imminent U.S. retaliation. And when an equivocating Obama undercut him by saying he planned only a "limited, narrow act" against Assad (adding, with consummate war-weariness, "A lot of people think something should be done, but nobody wants to do it") and then kicked the decision over to Congress, it was Kerry who, with help from Russia, rescued the day. Even as Congress was on the verge of rejecting an attack, creating a possible constitutional crisis, Kerry quickly negotiated a deal with the same thug and murderer he'd just condemned, compelling Assad to surrender his chemical weapons. At his year-end news conference in December, Obama called last September's accord one of his biggest triumphs in a generally grim 2013. What the president didn't mention was how close he'd come instead to creating, all by himself, the biggest humiliation of his presidency. It was mainly Kerry who transformed presidential dithering into diplomatic gold.
More recently, Kerry resurrected the Geneva peace initiative on Syria that the White House allowed to lapse into irrelevance a year and a half ago. Now he's pushing the boundaries of the possible with regard to a war that has grown exponentially harder to resolve. Whereas in the summer of 2012, Assad was besieged (even Russia was hinting he might be pushed out) and the rebel opposition was more unified and secular, today the Syrian dictator is amply supplied by the Russians and supported by Iranian-backed Hezbollah. The opposition, meanwhile, has fractured bitterly, and its strongest elements are radical Islamist militias, which are fighting each other (leading some intelligence experts to suggest that, as bad as Assad is, what might follow would be worse). The Syrian National Coalition representing the rebels in Geneva is increasingly coming to resemble the Iraqi National Congress led by Ahmad Chalabi before the 2003 Iraq invasion: It is a group that is largely made up of exiles and without influence inside its own country. Yet here, Kerry appears to be demanding the impossible, gambling American credibility once again, as he's already done by restarting the long-dormant talks between Israelis and Palestinians and by overseeing the Iran nuclear deal. He is publicly insisting that Assad must go when it is clear the Syrian leader, now relatively stronger, will not. At some point, Kerry may have to negotiate a truce with him that will also require painful compromise.
A "HUMAN WRECKING BALL"?
Some of Kerry's longtime colleagues on Capitol Hill are surprisingly harsh in their assessments of the man who, within the halls of the Senate, is beginning to earn a reputation as John Quixote. Kerry's old Vietnam comrade John McCain, who worked closely with him on restoring relations with Hanoi and introduced him at his confirmation hearing, is among the most publicly critical. "John Kerry is an old and dear friend who sees the world as he wants it to be and not as it is," McCain says. "He makes these optimistic statements that do not have reason to be optimistic. That raises expectations. When they don't come to fruition, then there's a commensurate perception that the United States is flailing around and the president is disengaged."
McCain recently called Kerry a "human wrecking ball" for signing an interim deal with Iran that lifted some sanctions in exchange for Tehran's pledge to suspend enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, or near-weapons-grade levels. Asked whether that assessment applied to other issues as well, McCain didn't hesitate to tick off where else he thought Kerry was making a muddle of U.S. foreign policy: "The Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Relations with Saudi Arabia. A lack of attention to Asia, as China has become more confrontational. What is our policy toward Egypt? Can anyone explain it to me? John Kerry flies to Saudi Arabia and says everything's fine. I met with the king; he said everything's not fine. Kerry goes to Israel, meets with Bibi [Netanyahu], and says, 'We're together on [the Palestinian peace talks].' They're not."
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee that Kerry once headed, is less of a firebrand than McCain, but he agrees with his assessment of the secretary of State. "I understand [Kerry] wants to create a legacy, and you want to know the truth, I hope on behalf of our country, he does. But sometimes I just think he's so anxious to make a deal, it worries me.… I don't think he grasps reality sometimes."
Kerry declined to be interviewed for this article, but his top aides counter that the secretary's willingness to take huge risks has already paid off. "The first boatload of chemical weapons left Syria earlier this month," says Douglas Frantz, Kerry's assistant secretary for public affairs. "For the first time in four decades, the U.S. government and Iran are engaged in serious negotiations. I don't think this is the work of someone who's careening wildly around the globe. By any measure, this is serious diplomacy."
Even within the White House, some officials are energized by Kerry's all-in diplomacy, following the tenure of Clinton, whom one National Security Council official described as reluctant, "almost to a fault, to get into things that were potentially risky." Indeed, what is strikingly different about all these diplomatic efforts, compared with Obama's first term and George W. Bush's eight years before that, is the degree to which Kerry is personally involved in the peacemaking. For more than a decade now, U.S. administrations have left the negotiating over Iran to the Europeans, or left the negotiating over Mideast peace to the Israelis and Palestinians themselves, or appointed special envoys who had little presidential backing and produced fewer results.
Today, each of these monumental efforts has an unmistakable American imprimatur: If any of these talks succeed, they could make history—and turn Barack Obama into a historic president. But if they fail, they will becloud Obama's second term abroad as much as the president's many domestic difficulties are now driving down his approval ratings at home.
Despite Kerry's immense exertions, the odds are against success. Among critics abroad and on Capitol Hill there is a sense that Kerry, with all his frenetic travel (he has been to the Mideast 10 times already), is turning into something of a diplomatic cowboy, a secretary of State who is overeager and is allowing his private ambitions to dictate the national interest. And he appears to want to do it all himself, dispensing with the special envoys that dominated Obama's first term. No one was blunter with such criticism than Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who in January reportedly mocked Kerry as "messianic" and said, "The only thing that can 'save us' is for John Kerry to win a Nobel Prize and leave us in peace." (Yaalon later apologized.)
KERRY VERSUS RICE: EMERGING SIGNS OF TENSION?
For now, with these critical negotiations all still in play, the major players in the administration have stayed mostly on message. Despite the presence of two sizable egos in Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who has been in office seven months, there have been few visible rifts between the State Department and the White House. "A very Happy Birthday to my friend and colleague John Kerry!" Rice tweeted when Kerry turned 70 on Dec. 11.
Even so, signs of tension have emerged between Kerry and Rice over the secretary of State's willingness to look the other way at the moral offenses of potential negotiating partners such as Egypt's coup leaders in pursuing the deals he so badly wants. The result, sometimes, has been mixed signals from the administration. Rice was upset when Kerry stopped in Egypt without rhetorically rapping the military junta that deposed the elected president, Mohammed Morsi. On a trip last fall, Rice was uncompromising on the need for Afghanistan's infuriatingly recalcitrant president, Hamid Karzai, to sign a bilateral security agreement right away, while Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel later granted Karzai more time.
More significantly, Vice President Joe Biden and some on the NSC appear to be more willing to pull out of Afghanistan altogether, pitting them against Kerry and the Pentagon, and prompting a recent warning from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. "I'm hearing there is still a large number of people in the White House who just want to pull the plug on Afghanistan altogether and just get the hell out and leave no residual force, and I think that would be a terrible mistake," Gates said in January after his book came out.
Rice also appears much warier of working with Moscow; she spent much of her tenure as U.N. ambassador trading fierce barbs with her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin. Kerry, by contrast, is getting along famously with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, angering Senate hawks like McCain. "It makes me sad to see John Kerry praising Lavrov, calling him his friend, appreciating his work on the chemical-weapons issue in Syria," McCain told National Journal. "Meanwhile, it's Russian planes that are killing Syrians, full of conventional weapons. It's an Orwellian experience."
Above all, whereas Rice led a major policy review last year that sought to define down America's role in the Middle East, Kerry has always wanted much deeper involvement, beginning with Mideast peace talks and strikes against airfields in Syria, along with establishing a humanitarian safety zone. While it is true that the White House pushed as hard as Kerry has for negotiation with Iran's new reformist government, having started up a secret back channel in late 2011, that was mainly to advance one of the president's main goals—nonproliferation—and to avoid military confrontation. "Anything labeled 'nonproliferation' and 'counterterrorism' gets the White House's attention. The notion of Americans as peacemakers does not," says one senior official who works for the administration.
"HE'S NOT GOING TO TAKE ORDERS"
Obama's first term began with impressive speeches abroad. But apart from a few diplomatic successes, such as the Iran opening and a shaky peace pact in Sudan, the president's first four years were distinguished overseas mainly by the upgrading of drone warfare into America's primary line of defense, and the killing of Osama bin Laden. Partly that was because Obama inherited a downgraded America from George W. Bush—an America that was "war weary" (one of the president's most frequently deployed phrases when he speaks about foreign policy) and looking homeward. Hillary Clinton's caution reflected those views. But it was also because Obama was never big on the presumption of American power, the traditional idea of the "indispensable nation" that was tarnished by Bush's errors of judgment in Iraq and Afghanistan. His dramatic escalation of drone warfare has been one way of asserting American power while simultaneously remaining at arm's length.
"In his political career he's had to be deliberative and patient. Now he's set free of all constraints."
Kerry's approach is different, and the reasons may be partially generational. Kerry's old-fashioned American belief in the limitless possibilities of U.S. diplomacy and prestige is the sort of attitude that still prevailed when a young John Kerry enlisted in the Naval Reserve in 1966. Obama and Rice, a generation younger, appear to see risks more than opportunities in many places. As the senior officialputs it, summing up their respective attitudes: "Obama sees the downside in everything, while Kerry seems to believe he can do anything."
Dating from his searing life experience as a decorated warrior and then a peacemaker in Vietnam, Kerry has a passionate belief in reconciliation with adversaries, and a willingness to deal with almost any dictator or autocrat who has the power to deliver it. Ever since Kerry famously questioned, as a returning Vietnam veteran, how Washington's policymakers could ask a soldier "to be the last man to die for a mistake," friends have said his fierce opposition to a war he believed was wrong fueled his ambitions to try to be a peacemaker, no matter what the odds.
Yet Kerry's worldview was also shaped by one of his signature achievements in 28 years as a senator: restoring diplomatic ties with Hanoi. "Reconciliation with Vietnam is something he worked very hard on," says Chris Gregory, a onetime campaign aide and a Vietnam veteran who has known Kerry since his antiwar days. "It helped form his views on diplomacy." Now, says Gregory, the world is getting a glimpse of Kerry Unbound. "In his political career he's had to be deliberative and patient. Now he's set free of all constraints. He's just going to keep going and going and going, and he won't stop. He's not going to take orders from Susan Rice or anybody else really.… I think he's having a lot of fun."
Kerry seems to be. Last fall he revisited Vietnam, simultaneously tweaking Hanoi's communist overseers by attending Catholic Mass in Saigon and his Capitol Hill critics who say he's neglecting Asia. And yet some argue that between Kerry's eagerness for old-style peacemaking and the White House's caution, a lot of broader diplomacy is being missed. Important alliances, they complain, are being given short shrift: relations with the Saudis, the Gulf states, the French, the Japanese. Constituencies are feeling ignored, especially in an Arab world that has seen this administration support revolution only halfheartedly over the last three years, and today is all but silent.
Whereas Hillary Clinton made a point of trying to deliver big transformative speeches—on Internet freedom, on the need for fundamental reform in the Arab world—Kerry is focused on the mechanics of deals, applying the "big Kerry arm" to the shoulders of uncooperative world leaders and trying to be on top of every erupting crisis at once. "Some say he's spreading himself too thin," says Jonah Blank of Rand, a former aide to Kerry on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "But many diplomatic breakthroughs come from simply being in the right place at the right time. Was it lucky that Putin took him up on his offer to have Assad give up all his chemical weapons? Luck—and hard work."
But even some of those friendly to Kerry wonder if the pendulum has swung too far from Clinton's "people to people" diplomacy. "The Arab world is facing its greatest political earthquake in a half-century, and there are 150 million Arabs under 30 that we could be reaching out to in ways that will secure our interests for years to come," says Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institution, who served as deputy assistant secretary of State for the Near East in Obama's first term. "They want to join the world America made. That's about pressuring governments for reforms, talking to countries in transition." As an example, Wittes says the administration is all but ignoring Tunisia right now even though the country is "at a crucial tipping point between becoming the first successful democratic transition in the Arab world and falling into terrorism fueled by instability." In Libya, the administration responded to the 2012 death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and the embarrassing Benghazi imbroglio by withdrawing its attention altogether, leaving the country to militias.
OUT OF TOUCH WITH REALITY?
Much of the congressional opposition to Kerry's diplomacy has centered on the interim deal with Iran, which critics like McCain and Corker say surrendered too much to Tehran for too little in return. But they also believe that Russia and China have gotten the better of a U.S. administration that is just a little too eager to make peace. They say there is no overarching global strategy, with conflicting signals coming out of the White house and the State Department. "It's all a little Keystone Kop-ish, as if the left arm isn't talking to the right arm," says Corker. "I have to say it's hard to understand where the administration is going, policy-wise. There's no question we are being viewed with a lot of concern about our credibility.… I think that's why you saw China do what it did in the East China Sea [provocatively declaring an "air-defense identification zone" over a group of disputed islands]. Also Putin stepping out. There's just no pushback. I get the impression the administration is trying to sweep things under the rug for the next three years so there's no conflict."
The administration heatedly denies such characterizations. A senior official close to Kerry says the secretary has had "screaming matches" with Lavrov, most recently in insisting that the Russian and Syrian delegations attend the Syria peace conference even if Iran was not invited. David Wade, Kerry's chief of staff, also notes that Kerry will have made five trips to Asia by February and is shoring up the "pivot" by focusing on strengthening U.S. relations with Southeast Asian nations that border China's underbelly. And already, Kerry has pragmatically walked back expectations for Mideast and Syrian peace, suggesting that the early deadlines for agreements will not be met.
Both Kerry and Rice have also occasionally criticized foreign leaders for rights abuses. In December, Kerry expressed his "disgust" with the crackdown on pro-Western demonstrators by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, who is allied with Putin. Rice, in a recent speech at the annual summit of Human Rights First, bluntly criticized both Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping. But there's no denying that some of America's most stalwart allies are deeply upset with this new let's-make-a-deal approach to the world. The Saudis, outraged over what they see as appeasement of Iran and Assad, are openly declaring independence from U.S. policy, arming the Lebanese army on their own. Turkey is peeved over the on-again, off-again U.S. pledge to stabilize Syria, arm the rebels, and provide more refugee support. In Asia, allies were unhappy with the mixed message delivered by Washington when at first it defiantly ordered U.S. B-52 flyovers and then advised U.S. commercial airliners to observe China's new defense zone. Shinzo Abe, Japan's new hard-line prime minister, is also privately telling visiting U.S. politicians that he doesn't feel he can rely on Washington any longer against China. Says James Risch of Idaho, another GOP senator on the Foreign Relations Committee: "If what is going on continues, it's going to be a disaster."
Kerry and his administration allies note that, thanks to a dysfunctional Congress, only half of State's assistant secretaries and undersecretaries have been confirmed, hobbling the routine upkeep of relationships. And they say it's wrong to confuse active peace diplomacy with an admission of weakness. The boldest initiatives always upset the status quo that countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel want to preserve, but they must be tried. "It's easy for people to stand on the sidelines and criticize when it's Secretary Kerry who's taking on the tough issues head on," says State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf. "What's the other option? Doing nothing? That's crazy."
KERRY'S "CONSTITUENCY OF ONE"
Kerry knows well that, whenever tensions have emerged between secretaries of State and the White Houses they serve, invariably it has been the secretary who has paid the political price. During World War I, Robert Lansing disdained Woodrow Wilson's dreams of "making the world safe" for democracy and self-determination—and found himself ignored, derided, and then fired. After Harry Truman assumed power from FDR in 1945, Jimmy Byrnes behaved as if he thought that he should have been president; he got his pink slip right quick. And a secretary of State who dares take on the president's proxy, the national security adviser, is also typically assured of a short stay in Foggy Bottom. Henry Kissinger, with Nixon's ear, turned William Rogers into a nonentity. In the Carter administration, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski fought an all-too-public battle with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, leading to Vance's resignation; and, of course, Colin Powell famously found himself downgraded from national hero to backbencher in the Bush 43 White House, which all but ignored him and then let him go.
Not surprisingly, Kerry has sought to work closely with the White House. Frantz recalls that his first encounter upon joining the administration was seeing Kerry "coming out of a meeting with Susan Rice with his arm around her. Once that happens to you, you never forget it. It's a nice feeling that tells you you're a part of Kerry World." Before he took office, Kerry met with the fraternity of former secretaries of State, including George Schultz, who warned him that the "key to success" would be to manage his relationship with the president and the NSC.
Kerry may also be leery of sinking too far into the aptly nicknamed Foggy Bottom, a place of interminable memos and reports with which his own father, Richard Kerry, grew disenchanted. "He went into the State Department thinking they were officers who could change the world, and instead found a bureaucracy," Kerry said after his father's death in 2001. That has provoked some complaints inside State that he's not "using the building"—that he's bypassing his own department's experts and is letting crucial relationships with old allies wither away while he pursues his dream of reorienting relations in the Mideast. "The secretary is basically a one-man State Department," says a longtime U.S. diplomat who served under Obama in his first term.
"They [the White House] like the idea that they can float trial balloons through Kerry. If they float, Obama gets the credit. If they shut down, it's just because Kerry failed."
Wade, Kerry's chief of staff, counters that Kerry is avoiding "political" appointments, seeking out the best of the best career Foreign Service officers and gradually delegating critical tasks to them, in deference to his father's advice. "Many talented people the secretary admires wanted more positions to go political, but the secretary has strong feelings about leveraging the building and the Foreign Service wherever he can," says Wade. "That's a legacy of where he comes from personally."
Rice and Kerry are both pragmatists, and both are also eager to address transnational threats, especially climate change. Both have done their share of compromising with autocrats to make messy problems go away. Right now, the two of them are in tenuous balance. "I think the White House likes Kerry going out and taking a lot of heat," says a former Kerry aide. "They like the idea that they can float trial balloons through Kerry. If they float, Obama gets the credit. If they shut down, it's just because Kerry failed. As of now, more are floating than sinking."
But Kerry has staked so much of the administration's credibility on these major negotiating efforts that if they begin to fail, tensions between him and the White House will likely grow . It's not surprising that, knowing 2014 will be a critical year on most of these fronts, Kerry spent New Year's Day in Jerusalem and Ramallah, strong-arming the reluctant Israelis and Palestinians. Looming above it all is the six-month negotiating period set out under the interim agreement with Iran: Somehow Kerry must find a way to get Iran to commit to some dismantlement of its nuclear program while conceding enough to Tehran to allow Iran's political reformists to save face. At the same time, he can't give up too much without provoking outrage from Israel and his critics on Capitol Hill. Yet here, just as in Syria, he faces what appears to be deadlock in the making: The West insists on shutting down much of Iran's centrifuge program, while Iranian President Hasan Rouhani recently declared in an interview with CNN that this was out of the question.
If Kerry succeeds at any of these initiatives, say those who know him well, it will be by doing what he does best: outlasting every other player. "He's never had an off button," Wade says. "What he'll do is outwork all those constraints," Chris Gregory says. "He'll just work harder than anyone else." If the president hopes to avoid failure in his second term, Kerry will have to.
This article appears in the February 1, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Kerry Unbound.