Kerry’s time has come

Syria, Iran and the Palestinians too, will determine the Secretary of State’s legacy for good or ill

The World Today Published 4 October 2013 Updated 7 December 2018 2 minute READ

James Baker, George H. Bush’s Secretary of State, once quipped that a good part of the reason for success in life wasn’t just showing up; but showing up at the right time. In the interest of full disclosure, I worked for the man and watched him prove himself right on several occasions.

Fortuna is critically important when it comes to whether politicians succeed or fail. As late as 1939, Churchill wondered if he would ever have a chance for greatness. Had there been no Civil War, Teddy Roosevelt once argued, nobody would have known Lincoln’s name.

By these standards John Kerry, despite the confusion and inconsistencies surrounding US policy towards the crisis in Syria of late, is a very lucky man. Whether he can convert his promising draw into clear diplomatic successes cannot be known six months into his first year as America’s leading diplomat. But what isn’t in doubt is that Kerry has the opportunity.

That opportunity flows from several factors. In his first term Barack Obama proved to be the most controlling foreign policy president since Richard Nixon. He dominates; he doesn’t delegate. On issues from Iraq and Afghanistan (run by the Pentagon and the White House), to the US-Israeli relationship (the NSC and White House), to strategy on Iran, Russia, and China, all power on foreign policy flows in and out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

As a result, Hillary Clinton – no less talented than her successor – was forced to define an agenda for herself; let’s call it planetary humanism. That agenda was important. It included initiatives on women and gender issues, the environment and youth that helped improve America’s image abroad. But it was not an agenda of the calibre required to emerge as a truly consequential Secretary of State.

Kerry’s tenure as Secretary of State, however, began to play out in an entirely different context. Obama was still controlling; but he needed to devote his second term to domestic issues such as immigration reform and the economy, not the Middle East.

That meant he needed a manager to deal with that intractable region. In short, he needed to delegate. Enter John Kerry. Unlike his predecessor, Kerry was inclined to be risk-ready not risk-averse And unlike his predecessor, his career as an elected politician is at its end and he is focused on leaving a foreign policy legacy.

From the beginning, Kerry seemed as if he was everywhere – working the China and North Korea problems, grappling with Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, on Syria while clearly pushing for a more active US role in the crisis. But it was on the Middle East peace process that Kerry revealed his willfulness and determination. Against considerable odds he managed to launch a serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiation that has yet to break down or require US intervention. Indeed at a time when the Middle East was melting down Kerry was criticized by those who believed that his priorities were wrong. Still, there are limits to Kerry’s influence and his capacity to succeed in any of these endeavours. The President remains the architect of America’s foreign policy. This may limit Kerry’s ability to shape American policy on certain issues.

Time will tell what influence Kerry is destined to have on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. But it is over Syria that Kerry’s differences with the President have surfaced and the limit of his influence has been revealed. This divergence isn’t the primary reason for the twists and turns in the Obama Administration’s Syria policy in past weeks, but it does reflect where Kerry fits in to the hierarchy.

Charged with working the Geneva process with the Russians and coordinating the opposition, Kerry was clearly looking for solutions to Syria. Like his predecessor he came to see the importance of providing direct military assistance to carefully vetted opposition groups, a policy the Administration launched earlier this year.

But it was after the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons on August 21 that Kerry emerged as chief advocate of a robust military strike against the regime. Using Second World War metaphors replete with references to Munich and appeasement, Kerry stood out as an advocate of the moral case for not allowing Assad’s act to go unpunished.

It is instructive that when President Obama decided to put military action on hold and seek Congressional authorization, he didn’t consult his Secretary of State, but with his political advisers. No one listening to the two men address the Syria issue in those weeks could have missed the difference between Kerry’s moral fervour and the President’s more detached demeanour.

It is far too early to say how the Kerry legacy will be judged, let alone how the two issues the Secretary of State has invested in – and now a third that he’s managing too, Iran – will play out. But one thing is clear. John Kerry has placed himself at the heart of issues that are likely to determine whether or not he is judged to be a truly consequential Secretary of State. Regardless of the outcome, he is clearly in the game and in the age of risk-averse politicians, there is something to be said for that.