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Kerry’s Energizer Bunny Diplomacy Takes Risks for Wins

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is departing on New Year’s Day for Jerusalem and Ramallah for another attempt at negotiating an end to 65 years of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Photographer: Jason Reed/AFP via Getty Images

After less than a year as secretary of state, John Kerry has emerged as a relentless evangelist for can-do -- or try-to-do -- diplomacy who’s taken risks, veered off-script and notched some tangible if tentative wins.

In 10 months and more than a quarter million miles crisscrossing the globe and negotiating long into many nights, the top U.S. diplomat has made progress toward eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons, slowing Iran’s nuclear program, resuscitating Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and negotiating legal protections so some U.S. forces can remain in Afghanistan after next year.

Kerry, 70, is starting 2014 the same way, departing on New Year’s Day for Jerusalem and Ramallah for another attempt at negotiating an end to 65 years of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

The trip, coming amid fresh tensions over Israel’s latest settlement plans, is typical of Kerry’s approach: tackling big problems in face-to-face talks with world leaders and demonstrating a willingness to go out on more than one limb. He doesn’t stick to talking points, and he’s strayed from the administration’s message on issues including drone policy, the military takeover in Egypt and U.S. intentions in Syria, forcing aides to hedge his comments on occasion. Somehow, he’s managed to squeeze lemonade out of some lemons.

“Part is skill, part is luck,” said Thomas Nides, a former deputy to Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton. Nides, now vice chairman at New York-based Morgan Stanley, said he’s impressed by Kerry’s ability to “march to the beat of his own drummer,” sidestepping the shadow of his famous predecessor and taking the initiative on issues that President Barack Obama is too busy to quarterback himself.

Keeping Promises

Kerry’s accomplishments so far are conditional, dependent on other parties keeping their promises. His deals will be tested in the first half of the new year, with targets for progress on Middle East peace and signing a Bilateral Security Agreement to exempt U.S. forces from prosecution in Afghan courts, as well as deadlines for compliance by Iran and Syria. There’s doubt already whether a long-promised Syrian peace conference will go forward as planned in late January.

Whatever their eventual outcome, Kerry has breathed new life into an array of long-shot talks. He has stuck with negotiations late into the night in Kabul, Geneva, Jerusalem and Ramallah to secure pledges from allies and adversaries alike that many -- including officials in the White House -- considered unachievable.

Obama’s Busy

Three U.S. national security and foreign policy officials said Kerry’s ambitious agenda in part reflects his belief that the president is consumed by domestic issues such as the budget and health care, is understandably reluctant to spend precious political capital on risky foreign initiatives and has less experience and fewer close relationships with foreign leaders than does his top diplomat, who was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. All three spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration politics.

In interviews, 13 other current and former aides and policy makers said Kerry is fueled by ambitious goals and a fervent belief in negotiations and his own powers of persuasion. That’s rooted in a childhood as the son of a Foreign Service officer and a career as an elected politician. David Wade, who has long served as Kerry’s chief of staff, describes a man who cycles and plays hockey after two hip replacements and a broken nose, driven to seize every day after surviving his service as a naval officer in the Vietnam War.

Last Big Job

Part of his readiness to take risks may be his belief, after an unsuccessful presidential campaign, that serving as the nation’s top diplomat is likely to be his last big job.

One of the oldest members of Obama’s cabinet, Kerry keeps a pace that’s exhausting even for aides half his age. On his birthday Dec. 11, he had a working breakfast with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a staff meeting, intelligence reports, phone calls, a memorial service for the late South African President Nelson Mandela and a meeting with former Vice President Al Gore. Then he gave a classified briefing to senators on Iran, lobbied a senator on ratification of the international disabilities treaty, delivered a year-end policy speech, had a brief birthday dinner with his wife at home and flew all night to the Middle East, where he took a motorcade through a snowstorm for late-night talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

‘Keeps Going’

“John Kerry is the Energizer Bunny of U.S. foreign policy -- he keeps going and going,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast peace negotiator now at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington. Kerry’s also won effusive praise from Israeli and Palestinian leaders not known for bestowing plaudits.

In a Dec. 8 speech, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Kerry for “his tireless efforts for peace. Tireless. I mean this man doesn’t sleep.” Netanyahu joked that some of his cabinet members “are starting to get jealous. They complain that I only have time for him.”

Speaking to reporters in the West Bank on Dec. 18, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat predicted Kerry may succeed where others have failed in brokering a two-state solution. “The difference this time is John Kerry,” he said. “This man made a difference in terms of his relentless efforts and unwavering commitment.”

Fallback Choice

Kerry was greeted as a safe if unexciting fallback after Republican senators said they wouldn’t confirm Obama’s first pick for top diplomat, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, because of her flawed account of the deadly attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. Rice is now national security adviser.

Clinton, who is considering a run for president in 2016, is now seen by some in the foreign policy establishment as having been cautious to a fault. She delegated intractable issues such as the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iran to special envoys while she focused on championing American business opportunities, Internet freedom and women’s rights.

Kerry has made headway where Clinton couldn’t thanks to a “combination of Obama’s willingness finally to delegate to Kerry because the clock is ticking down” for accords on major issues, “and Kerry’s readiness to take risks when his career is coming to an end and hers is taking off,” Miller said.

In his first term, Obama was “the most controlling foreign policy president since Richard Nixon,” said Miller, who worked for four administrations, both Democrat and Republican.

More Leeway

Obama’s priorities also were different in his first term, with a focus on repairing America’s image and alliances abroad, ending the Iraq war and reviewing the Afghan strategy. That circumscribed what Clinton could do, according to State Department and White House officials who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations, as did her careful relationship with Obama, her rival in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries.

In contrast, Kerry -- who gave Obama his first opportunity on the national stage by asking him to deliver the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and many of whose aides also have worked for the president -- has been given more leeway on high-profile foreign initiatives.

In repeat visits to the Middle East this year for marathon meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Kerry impressed Obama with his tenacity and all-out approach, administration officials said. “He’s willing to take a risk and actually do the grunt work of negotiating,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said in an interview.

Working for a president whose in-box is overflowing with domestic challenges -- and having earned the confidence of Obama’s inner circle as a Mr. Fix-it -- Kerry may have a freer hand to speak and act for the U.S. than any secretary of state since James Baker under President George H.W. Bush a quarter-century ago.

Explaining Later

“I get the impression sometimes that Kerry will do what he needs to get done and explain it to the White House later,” said Mike McCurry, a State Department and White House spokesman under President Bill Clinton and adviser to Kerry’s 2004 presidential run.

Kerry also has formed a powerful and chummy relationship with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, making for an odd couple whose cooperation on issues such as Syria and Iran has upstaged differences over Russia’s policies at home and with former Soviet republics such as Georgia and Ukraine.

At the same time, Kerry’s taking a hammering from U.S. lawmakers -- who cut him no slack as a former member of their elite club -- over the terms of a deal to rein in Iran’s nuclear program and for his arguments against imposing new sanctions. Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, has derided the man he still describes as a “good friend” as a “human wrecking ball.”

Mideast ‘Disarray’

“Our whole policy in the Middle East -- and it reverberates around the world, by the way -- is in such disarray that I have never seen anything like it in my lifetime,” McCain said at a policy conference in Washington on Nov. 14.

While Kerry described his approach to foreign policy as “diplomacy backed by force” in a Dec. 7 speech, he serves a president who is averse to using force in most cases. Obama had made clear he doesn’t want to go down a slippery slope to military intervention and wants to pivot to Asia from the mayhem in the Middle East. In practice, Kerry seems to rely as much on the force of his own personality as the threat of force to press for diplomatic solutions.

Kerry spoke passionately of the need for military strikes on Syria after an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack, only to have Obama announce that he would seek an authorizing vote from Congress that many lawmakers said was unlikely to pass.

Chemical Weapons

Kerry’s off-script answer to a reporter’s question -- he said the only way the Syrian regime could avoid a U.S. strike would be to surrender all chemical weapons in a week, which he said would never happen -- prompted Russia to seek President Bashar al-Assad’s agreement to give up his stockpiles of nerve gas and other agents.

What began as a gaffe that sent Kerry’s aides rushing to clarify and downplay his remarks turned into an opportunity for diplomacy that the White House and Kerry embraced.

“He is prepared to take risks, believing the greater risk is not to make the effort,” said Dennis Ross, a former special envoy for Iran policy under Hillary Clinton and adviser to Obama who’s now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “He has been given a license to try by the president. Secretaries of state cannot get very far if the White House does not give them space to make the effort.”

Not all of Kerry’s off-the-cuff remarks have turned out as well. In an Aug. 1 interview, Kerry said erroneously that Obama had a timeline to end drone strikes in Pakistan “very, very soon” and referred to the military takeover in Egypt as “restoring democracy.”

Patience, Persistence

In the White House and among aides who’ve sat in his negotiations from Kabul and Geneva to Jerusalem and Ramallah, Kerry is credited with extraordinary patience and persistence and a willingness to hear out other parties.

On Iran, the pain of economic sanctions and outreach by a new president in Tehran created an opportunity for a diplomatic settlement that Kerry pressed hard, making two trips to Geneva to engage in days of horse-trading with Iran and the French.

Former Deputy Secretary of State Nicholas Burns, now a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, says Kerry has shown himself to be “an able tactical diplomat - - persistent, patient and flexible in getting to a deal.”

With Middle East peace talks and Afghanistan, Kerry capitalized on personal relationships with the Israeli, Palestinian and Afghan leaders forged during 28 years as a senator and unofficial overseas envoy.

Personal Relations

“He’s always believed in the importance of personal relations and personal engagement in politics and in diplomacy,” said former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, now president of the Brookings Institution in Washington and chairman of the secretary’s foreign policy advisory board. “The Senate operates very much on that principle.”

Kerry, Talbott said, is also taking advantage of “some opportunities for diplomacy, especially in the greater Middle East, that weren’t as ripe previously.”

Even so, the challenges Kerry “is attacking are multiyear, multi-secretary issues,” said Nides. If his passion and perpetual motion break through deadlocks, it will be also “because of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and diplomats who spend a lot of time in these areas. My hope is that it will bear fruit.”

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