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Kerry walks the diplomacy high wire
Dec 17, 2013 - By Doyle McManus
His success has been limited so far, but he's willing to take risks -- and he's not even a year into the job.
Has John F. Kerry turned into the unexpected star of President Barack Obama's second term?
He was Obama's second choice as secretary of state (after Susan Rice). He's the same windy, stiff Bostonian who ran unsuccessfully for president a decade ago.
And he has taken on a list of assignments that looked distinctly unpromising: nuclear negotiations with Iran, peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the civil war in Syria.
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 Dec. 6, at the end of his latest dash through the Middle East. "It always seems impossible until it's done." (That's a quote heard often following the death of Nelson Mandela, who said it often.)
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, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Clinton tended to subcontract out the unpromising assignments to special envoys like the late Richard C. Holbrooke, her deputy for Afghanistan. But Kerry has taken them on himself, personally and visibly. If any of them fail -- and they all could -- he'll take the fall himself.
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 State Department official told me. "His sense is that we've only got so much time."
Back to the naysayers, though. Not everyone thinks Kerry is doing his job right. "This guy has been a human wrecking ball," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said last month -- adding, Washington-style, that he still considers Kerry "a very good friend." "Our whole policy in the Middle East ... is in such disarray that I've never seen anything like it."
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 Bashar Assad out of power.
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 adviser, 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 White House is happy to drop into someone else's lap. But it does lead some diplomats to wonder whether Obama and Rice can be counted on to back up Kerry when he makes a deal.
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 Congress and the government of Israel if it is to stick.
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.
Editor's note: Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him e-mail at email@example.com. His column is distributed through the McClatchy-Tribune News Service.