And now, Kerry still tilts this way and that on Afghanistan, depending on the last person who has briefed him, according to close associates. Not unlike the Obama administration—which underwent an agonizing four-month debate over Afghanistan. Kerry’s suspicion of COIN may be hindered, too, by the need to be a loyal Senate supporter of the war if he ever hopes to become secretary of State. “There’s always been a joke about that; people will say he’s ‘running’ for secretary of State,” says Andy Fisher, who until recently was a minority spokesman on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Indeed, when he’s not expressing doubts, Kerry sometimes sounds like a mouthpiece for the administration rather than a watchdog in the Fulbright mode. Asked about whether a U.S. withdrawal timeline is wise or merely a spur to the enemy, he replies: “It’s just like Iraq. Why is a date good for George Bush in Iraq and it’s not good for Barack Obama in Afghanistan?”
Kerry, of course, denies that he’s carrying Obama’s water—or agitating for a last great political post. He takes his oversight role seriously. “We’re a separate branch of government. Our responsibility is accountability. And we have major constitutional responsibilities in the waging of war.”
According to one senior Obama official who knows him, Kerry’s reduced political horizons have made him a much better public official. “He reached for the biggest of the brass rings, which he had spent his whole life preparing for,” the official said. “Then he hoped to be Obama’s running mate, hoped to be Obama’s secretary of State. He got nothing, and emerged as chairman of this committee, and one of the most effective ones ever, in terms of his focus and his activism abroad.”
The kindest explanation of Kerry’s support for the Afghan strategy is that, for all his many flaws, he is an extraordinarily disciplined man who honestly thinks that this is a different situation from Vietnam. And that he believes Obama and Petraeus—though the two often seem at odds—are trying their hardest to wend through what is clearly a quagmire without the blood price of Vietnam. “When we started Vietnam Veterans Against the War, 350 people a week were dying,” Gregory says. Walter Cronkite was announcing the tally every night on the TV news. Fewer than 500 Americans have died in the past year in Afghanistan.
Kerry is, of course, aware of the expectations surrounding him. He proudly points to an album on his wall featuring the Bruce Springsteen song “Last to Die,” with an inscription from the Boss: “John, thanks for the inspiration.”
“Anybody who’s thinking in depth about our involvement there had better struggle with those questions,” Kerry says. “They are the right questions to be asking.” And he says that he’s open to changing his mind about whether the Petraeus strategy can succeed: “I’ll make that call tomorrow, if I need to.”
Some who are loyal to him think that he mainly wants to remain an elder statesman but the restless young Kerry inside him won’t allow it. “There’s a side of him that doesn’t want to be Henry Kissinger, that still wants to be the John Kerry of 1971,” one of his advisers says. Especially if he finds himself ignored by Obama in the months ahead, Kerry could easily become the restless rebel again. In either case, another big fight over the U.S. presence in Afghanistan looms large—and it will probably start inside the Democratic Party. The only question is whether John Kerry will be the one pleading for more patience or the one touching the battle off.
This article appears in the Dec. 11, 2010, edition of National Journal.