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Kerry’s first year as top U.S. diplomat yields breakthroughs on thorny issues

  • McClatchy Washington Bureau
  • Published Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014, at 4:03 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014, at 5:32 p.m.

— A year ago, John Kerry succeeded Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, joking on one of his first days at work that he had “big heels to fill.”

Now a year into his role as America’s top diplomat, Kerry has proven that any trepidation about following such a high-profile figure was misplaced.

Kerry’s anniversary this week – he assumed office on Feb. 1, 2013 – finds him, in the opinion of foreign policy analysts, with more significant, concrete breakthroughs than Clinton had in her entire four-year term. As showpieces they hold up the nuclear deal with Iran and the chemical weapons pact with Syria.

Kerry is even outpacing Clinton on travel, spending nearly half the past year – 144 days – traveling nearly 313,000 miles on trips to 39 countries, according to an 11-page State Department summary of his accomplishments of the past year. Clinton traveled to more countries – 44 – in her first year, but far fewer miles, 206,799. Kerry’s aides say the stamina would be remarkable even if he weren’t 70 years old; Clinton was 61 in 2009.

Comparisons between Kerry’s and Clinton’s tenures are inevitable, given that Clinton is widely expected to tout her time as secretary of state as a plus in any future presidential campaign – she’s considered the early front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 2016.

Analysts say Clinton’s political ambitions probably account for some of the differences in results between the two: Clinton saw the post as a stepping stone and played it safe, leaving office with no defining doctrine or big diplomatic feat, while Kerry is approaching it as a capstone, gambling on high-stakes initiatives in hopes of ending his decades-long political career with a diplomatic coup.

Kerry’s team says he doesn’t compare himself to his predecessor, whom they credit with laying the foundation for Kerry’s successes.

Both critics and admirers agree that the accomplishments are important but reversible, and the challenges ahead myriad.

“He’s had an agenda from Day One,” said Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger, President Bill Clinton’s national security adviser, who now leads the global strategies firm Albright Stonebridge Group with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. “He’s determined to move things forward and there’re very few people in politics with the courage to fail in order to create an opportunity to succeed.”

Anthony Cordesman, a former senior defense official who’s now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Kerry has surprised observers as secretary by displaying more “depth and ability than he could’ve shown in the Senate.”

“It’s liberating not to be a presidential candidate anymore. And it’s liberating to be out of the Senate,” Cordesman said. “And, particularly, in terms of Kerry, you have to understand that this is your legacy.”

Critics say that Kerry is on a fool’s errand trying to revive Middle East peace talks and that he overestimates U.S. influence in Arab transitions, is paralyzed on Syria and absent in Africa. He’s had to smooth diplomatic strains not only with longtime allies in Europe, but in India, Saudi Arabia and Mexico, among others. The Obama administration’s goal of strengthening U.S. influence in strategically important areas – projects known as the “Russia reset” and the “Asia pivot” – have had some measurable successes. But there also has been worrying backsliding, as the U.S. foreign policy focus remains rooted in the Middle East.

Then there’s the question of style. Profiles of Kerry routinely paint a picture of an arrogant and sometimes awkward gasbag whose tendency to drift off-message has sent the White House into damage-control mode on several occasions. In one memorable gaffe, Kerry said the Egyptian military, which had just forced out the first democratically elected president in the country’s history, was “restoring democracy.”

Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who’s known Kerry for years from the Senate, made headlines when he called Kerry a “human wrecking ball” who’s so overwhelmed that “they don’t know from one hour to the next where the plane is going.”

Kerry’s defenders counter that such criticism is too easily dismissive of landmark agreements he helped to broker on some of the most vexing foreign policy challenges in recent history.

Iran’s agreement to curtail its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief is part of a broader, tentative reaching out to the West by a relatively moderate new administration in Tehran. But it took the White House and the State Department’s willingness to seize on the overtures and turn them into real policy shifts; Kerry was instrumental in that process, according to close observers.

Foreign policy observers are more divided when it comes to Kerry’s handling of the 3-year-old Syrian conflict, which has killed more than 120,000 people and scattered millions of refugees throughout an already volatile region.

Analysts say Kerry is spared some criticism on Syria policy because the U.S. position of nonintervention comes straight from the White House; his primary role is to keep the humanitarian aid flowing and continue the search for an acceptable Syrian partner in a landscape where Islamists have overwhelmed the more moderate, Western-friendly opposition.

Kerry has focused on the so-called Geneva process, named for the city where in June 2012 the United States, Russia and several other countries agreed to a framework that foresaw a second conference, where Syrian protagonists would meet to form a transitional governing body with full executive powers. That process would lead to democratic elections and a new constitution. But that second conference wasn’t convened until this January, 18 months and tens of thousands of dead later.

Why it took so long is another chapter in the Kerry-Clinton comparison. Frederic Hof, who helped to broker the June 2012 Geneva communique in his former role as the State Department’s special representative to the transition in Syria, recalled that he got on a plane after that first summer conference planning to make the rounds of opposition leaders in an effort to “drag them to Geneva” to build on the communique.

Instead, Hof said, a couple weeks later a fierce fight erupted at the U.N. Security Council over a proposed resolution against the government of President Bashar Assad. Russia invoked its veto, infuriating the United States and its allies. Clinton slammed Russia and its fellow Assad ally, China, demanding they “get off the sidelines.” Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said Moscow “simply cannot accept” any path toward sanctions and “external military involvement in Syrian domestic affairs.”

Hof recalled that Kofi Annan, the veteran diplomat who was then the U.N. special envoy for the Syrian crisis, viewed the harsh exchange as the death knell for any immediate progress toward Geneva. Annan resigned weeks later.

“Any sense of the U.S. and Russia cooperating on this was blown away by that debate,” said Hof, who’s now a senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.

Fast-forward to this month, and Kerry can say that the most basic goal of the Geneva process was met: Regime and opposition delegates met face to face in Switzerland. Pulling it off required Kerry to work closely with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov; both men had to set aside leftover tensions from spats over Iran and North Korea, the expulsion of USAID from Russia, U.S. anger over Moscow’s treatment of gays, and Russia granting asylum to the fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.

There were no major breakthroughs at the Geneva meetings, but Hof said the talks were useful for steering world attention toward the catastrophic human toll of the conflict. Besides, there’s little else Kerry can do when the White House is adamantly opposed to wading deeper into the Syrian conflict.

“He cares deeply, he’s paying his dues, he’s on the road constantly, and he’s trying to make something positive out of extraordinarily difficult situations, especially Syria,” Hof said. “I give him high marks for his energy, motivation and intentions. He’s dealing with a very weak hand.”

U.S. views of the Arab Spring also are areas of sharp contrast between Clinton and Kerry. The excitement over watching millions of people rise against dictatorship that reigned under Clinton wore off quickly when the revolts carved out operating space for the region’s deadliest terror networks. Today, said Tamar Cofman Wittes, the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, U.S. interest in the Arab Spring revolts has narrowed to terrorism, the stability of the Sinai and the upholding of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.

“They’ve kind of done a pendulum swing from enthusiastic embrace of the Arab uprisings in 2011 to a hands-off approach this year,” said Cofman Wittes, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs from 2009 to 2012. “They might’ve felt that initial approach was unsustainable, but I think the current hands-off approach is also unsustainable.”

Kerry’s signature effort in the Middle East, an attempt to get Israeli and Palestinian officials back to the negotiating table to hammer out an agreement, is one many say is doomed to fail, ridiculed in both the Arab and Israeli press. Yet Kerry slogs on, ignoring the naysayers. He’s flown to the region nine times to press the parties to talk and is expected soon to offer a “framework” for an agreement. Right-wing politicians in Israel are livid over what one called his “obsession,” after years when the U.S. pressed Israel little to come to terms.

“He believes his charisma and common sense will carry the day,” Hof said. “He does not suffer from a lack of confidence, that’s for sure.”

Kerry’s focus on the Arab world causes some analysts to declare from time to time that the “Asia pivot” is dead. However, some specialists on the Asia Pacific region say the reality is more nuanced.

When Kerry took office a year ago, East Asia was on alert amid heightened tensions in China’s territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan, said Robert S. Ross, a professor of Chinese foreign policy at Boston College. There was little Chinese cooperation toward containing an increasingly belligerent North Korea, and virtually no military-to-military contact between China and the United States, putting the nations at risk for some maritime mishap with a high potential for escalation.

That’s in part because Clinton’s tone and strong anti-China stances on the territorial disputes made her diplomatic work difficult. Chinese leaders were furious when she called their behavior “despicable” for failing to support a Security Council resolution on Syria.

A year into Kerry’s tenure, Ross said, the picture from Asia is brighter. Ross, who’s in Beijing for six months, said U.S. diplomacy has brought about improved cooperation with China on North Korea, including landmark banking and other sanctions. And while there are still no U.S.-Chinese military agreements, he said, there are deeper military contacts so that American officials can “pick up the phone and call them if there’s an escalation.”

Perhaps most importantly, Ross said, the U.S. no longer takes hard positions on the sovereignty disputes.

“Secretary Kerry speaks with a quieter voice and made real policy adjustments,” Ross said. “The quiet approach has been more useful than his predecessor’s.”

Email: hallam@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @HannahAllam

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