He was Obama's second choice as secretary of State (after
But in 10 months, Kerry has embarked on a whirlwind of diplomacy. He helped conclude an interim deal with Iran that puts a ceiling on Tehran's nuclear enrichment. He launched new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks with the goal of producing a deal next year. And he secured a date for negotiations to end the war in Syria, although it's still not certain who will show up.
"The naysayers are wrong to call peace in this region an impossible goal," Kerry said in Jerusalem on Friday, at the end of his latest dash through the Middle East. "It always seems impossible until it's done."
Actually, the naysayers say a lot more than that. For one thing, they note, Air Kerry has produced a series of thrilling takeoffs but no safe landings. The Iran agreement is a long way from a permanent deal, the Israeli-Palestinian talks are just talks, and the Syria conference is little more than a date and a city (Geneva, Jan. 22).
But give Kerry credit. He has dared to take big risks — in notable contrast to his revered but risk-averse predecessor,
One reason for the contrast is simple: Kerry, who turns 70 this week, knows this is almost certainly his last major assignment in American politics — his last opportunity to make an outsized mark. Unlike Clinton, he isn't considering running for president again, which means he can afford to absorb a setback or two.
Besides, one lesson of Clinton's tenure (to Kerry fans, anyway) is that caution may be an overrated virtue. Quick quiz: What was Clinton's greatest achievement as secretary of State? Answer: the "reset" with Russia — and it didn't last.
"There are opportunities now, and Kerry feels it's vital to take advantage of them," a
Back to the naysayers, though. Not everyone thinks Kerry is doing his job right. "This guy has been a human wrecking ball," Sen.
McCain and other conservatives argue that the nuclear deal with Iran ceded too much to the mullahs and shook the confidence of allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel. They worry Kerry's Syria talks aren't likely to succeed at easing
Some diplomats worry that Kerry is spending too much time on Israeli-Palestinian talks that aren't likely to bear fruit — and, as a result, not focusing on more promising pursuits. (Even Kerry's own Middle East negotiator, Martin Indyk, has warned of that danger, one official said.)
It does seem odd for a secretary of State to pour most of his time into a part of the world that Obama's national security advisor, Susan Rice, dismissed as too time-consuming for the president.
In fact, that is one reason Kerry has been given so much leeway to try his hand on Iran, Israel and Syria: They're all issues the
The critics' bottom line is that Kerry is putting too much store in diplomacy for diplomacy's sake — that he's too confident of his own power to persuade, too eager to make a deal.
Unsurprisingly, Kerry dismisses the criticism. On Iran, for example, he says any deal will have to pass muster with both
In any case, the worry is premature: Kerry hasn't made a deal yet. Even the nuclear agreement with Iran is only an interim step.
It's difficult to see the danger in trying a little high-wire diplomacy, especially on problems where expectations are so low. A long-term deal with Iran could well be elusive. Israel is unlikely to make peace with the Palestinians. Assad may succeed in clinging to power in Syria.
But if John Kerry can succeed on only one of those intractable cases, he'll be batting .333 — and by baseball standards, that's good enough to make the all-star team.