John Kerry: A Diplomatic One-Man Band

With each stop, Clinton’s successor appears to eclipse her tenure as secretary of State.

US Secretary of State, John Kerry looks out of the window of a Black Hawk helicopter at the city en route to ISAF Headquarters after an unannounced visit to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in Kabul on October 11, 2013. US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived on an unannounced visit to Kabul to try to advance troubled negotiations with Afghanistan on some US troops staying in the country after 2014. 
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
Oct. 11, 2013, 10:23 a.m.

“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.

Yet suc­cess still hangs in the bal­ance. Over the week­end Kerry, com­bin­ing smooth in­duce­ments to Kar­zai with his spe­cial brand of tough talk (oro­tund though it some­times is), warned that “if the is­sue of jur­is­dic­tion can­not be re­solved, then, un­for­tu­nately, there can­not be a bi­lat­er­al se­cur­ity agree­ment.” Without one, it is not hard to ima­gine Afgh­anistan fall­ing in­to an­oth­er civil war of the kind that ori­gin­ally gave birth to the Taliban — and to 9/11. A trip to Afgh­anistan by this re­port­er in mid-May re­vealed that seni­or U.S., NATO and Afghan of­fi­cials be­lieve they can­not suc­ceed un­less a mil­it­ary con­tin­gent of per­haps 5,000 to 10,000 troops re­mains, along with help in the air, and that can only oc­cur un­der a bi­lat­er­al se­cur­ity pact. Lt. Gen. Nick Carter, the deputy com­mand­er of the In­ter­na­tion­al Se­cur­ity As­sist­ance Force un­der Mar­ine Gen. Joseph Dun­ford, said then that the U.S.-NATO plan to train, ad­vise, and as­sist the Afghan forces will take at least un­til 2018 to com­plete. Those views were echoed by Army Chief of Staff Sher Mo­hammad Karimi, who said the Afghan mil­it­ary and po­lice will need ma­jor as­sist­ance in lo­gist­ics, air sup­port, med­ic­al ser­vices “maybe for an­oth­er 5-10 years.” Oth­er NATO na­tions are now wait­ing on Wash­ing­ton and Ka­bul to sign an ac­cord be­fore they com­mit their own forces. So a very great deal de­pends right now on John Kerry.

Is Kerry, only nine months on the job, already prov­ing to be a bet­ter sec­ret­ary of State than Hil­lary Clin­ton? To be fair to Clin­ton, she del­eg­ated Afgh­anistan and Pakistan to Hol­brooke, one of Amer­ica’s most able dip­lo­mats, and the Middle East to George Mitchell, the former U.S. sen­at­or. She also be­came sec­ret­ary of State at a raw­er time for Amer­ica, when the key task of the new Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion was to re­store some luster to a U.S. im­age badly tar­nished by the on­go­ing Ir­aq war and the glob­al fin­an­cial crisis triggered by Wall Street. As a res­ult, the ad­min­is­tra­tion was then fo­cused on em­phas­iz­ing the “soft” dip­lomacy of U.S. im­age-build­ing, val­ues-pro­mo­tion and in­flu­ence over “hard” or co­er­cive dip­lomacy, in oth­er words per­son­al me­di­ation in con­flicts.

But neither did Clin­ton seem eager to step in when Hol­brooke and Mitchell or oth­er spe­cial en­voys failed to make head­way. It’s also clear that Kerry’s ef­forts are largely of his own mak­ing — es­pe­cially in the Mideast, where the White House ap­pears to have some­what re­luct­antly let him try, mar­gin­al­iz­ing pre­vi­ous ef­forts to “pivot” its in­terests to Asia. And to a strik­ing de­gree, Kerry’s ef­forts to bring Is­rael­is and Palestini­an to­geth­er, to ne­go­ti­ate a truce in Syr­ia at a “Geneva II” con­fer­ence, and to find com­mon ground with Ir­an on its nuc­le­ar pro­gram are all pieces of the same puzzle. Ir­an, for ex­ample, will con­tin­ue to shore up Syr­ia’s As­sad and Hezbol­lah as long as it fears mil­it­ary threats from Is­rael and the United States over its nuc­le­ar pro­gram. If those threats abate, and some kind of nuc­le­ar agree­ment is signed, it might just be pos­sible for Kerry to also in­duce Tehran to sep­ar­ate it­self from the As­sad re­gime, thereby mak­ing a truce in the civil war easi­er. A sim­il­ar lo­gic ap­plies to Rus­sia, which has also backed As­sad and of­ten seen it­self as an ad­versary to U.S. in­terests in the re­gion.

Un­til now, one of the biggest stick­ing points over a Syr­ia peace con­fer­ence is wheth­er Ir­an would at­tend, but the new open­ing between Wash­ing­ton and Tehran could help solve that is­sue. It is no small mat­ter that Ir­a­ni­an For­eign Min­is­ter Za­rif is the same Ir­a­ni­an dip­lo­mat who helped the U.S. to cre­ate the post-Taliban Afghan gov­ern­ment at a con­fer­ence in Bonn in late 2001. Like Kerry, Za­rif is also a mas­ter at find­ing com­mon ground.

In truth, the pro­spects for Is­raeli-Palestini­an peace or an agree­ment with Ir­an that would halt the nuc­le­ar pro­gram that the Is­lam­ic Re­pub­lic has ded­ic­ated it­self to for dec­ades look quix­ot­ic at best. What’s also not very clear as yet is how much Kerry is mak­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion strategy, versus simply car­ry­ing it out en­er­get­ic­ally, as Clin­ton of­ten did. To a strik­ing de­gree, new Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­visor Susan Rice has taken charge in­side the White House, of­fi­cials say, and Obama him­self re­mains his own No. 1 strategist. But if there are deals to be made and Kerry’s the one in the cam­era shot, he’ll get a lot of the cred­it. And he may yet leave a con­sid­er­able mark as Amer­ica’s top dip­lo­mat.

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