Not long ago, John McCain called him a human wrecking ball. Can the secretary of state finally achieve a lasting legacy?
He’s 71 now, a man who has lived most of his adult life in the public eye. It’s been a career of almosts and near misses—and fugitive moments of glory. He’s been grasping for the brass ring his entire life, it seems, determined to be a man of import and impact, to make his mark. But somehow it’s always eluded John Kerry. More doors are closed now than open, and Kerry has less than two years left in his job.
And apparently, just three months more—until June 30—to secure the lasting legacy in public life he has dreamed of from the time he was a young Vietnam veteran and thrust into the first of many public spotlights.
For America’s secretary of state—the “tireless, and I mean tireless," John Kerry, as President Obama put it in his Rose Garden remarks Thursday—there was more going on in Lausanne, Switzerland, than days of frantic negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. As April dawned, and the negotiations went on, then two days past a self-imposed March 31 deadline, Kerry outlasted everyone, bargaining endlessly with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and talking sanctions, breakout times, centrifuge numbers and inspection rules. It worked. On April 2, Kerry, Zarif and the five other nations involved in the talks announced an impressively detailed “framework” to be completed by the June.
At a nighttime news conference in Lausanne, Kerry also said, rather proudly, that contrary to some expectations the timeframe of the agreement is much longer than just ten years on many aspects. And when it comes to some “transparency measures” by Iran, he said there is “no sunset to the deal that we are working to finalize.” Those protections “will never expire,” Kerry said. Translated: If the deal goes through, I might have just made permanent peace break out in the Middle East.
It’s a lot to hope for. Right now, Kerry’s legacy, if he has one, is encapsulated in a few well-known lines.
“How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
“I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”
“(Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done.”
The first made his name, the second helped to cost him the presidency, and the third—until his possible breakthrough with Iran—is an apparent gaffe that seemed to define his brief term as secretary of state.
Kerry, it once appeared, had the heritage and breeding to be, a la the Kennedys, another one of America’s princes. His father was a diplomat, he went to the best boarding schools, and he was an heir to the Forbes fortune. He married well too; both wives had money and Kerry was one of the richest men ever to be a senator. But despite the acronym of his name being JFK, the magic wasn’t there.
He sprang into public consciousness as the leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. His 1971 testimony before the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations was a searing indictment of U.S. war actions, branding as “war criminals” the government officials prosecuting the war. His work on Vietnam gave him notoriety he used to build a political career in Massachusetts. He first ran for office when he was 29, winning a Democratic congressional primary but losing in the final after his opponent correctly tagged him a “carpetbagger.” Undeterred, he continued to lay groundwork for a new race. He went to law school and started to work as an assistant district attorney. In 1982–when he was 39–he ran and won for lieutenant governor. The governor he was paired with–Michael Dukakis–would himself be the Democratic nominee for president six years later. Well before that, however, Kerry would become US Senator, running for and winning after then incumbent Paul Tsongas in 1984 said he would be stepping down due to a cancer scare. Kerry went on to hold the job for more than 28 years.
For most, being a senator should have been accomplishment enough. Yet Kerry gave the impression of a curiously lackluster and uninspiring politician. Some of that, perhaps, was that he operated for most of his Senate career in the shadows of Ted Kennedy, a larger-than-life presence in Massachusetts. Despite his many foibles and the controversial drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne, Kennedy was sufficiently beloved in the Bay State that his death prompted an outpouring of grief and the eventual construction of the just-opened Edward M Kennedy Institute for the US Senate. At this point, one can’t imagine a similar scene upon Kerry’s passing.
Then too, Kerry’s public personality was the opposite of Kennedy’s gregariousness. Kerry came across as aloof and cerebral. And those differences were reflected in the two men’s politics. Kennedy’s issues were the subjects that directly touched people – health care, education, jobs. Kerry, on the other hand, focused on broader issues of international import. He chaired a Senate committee on POW/MIA Affairs, he spearheaded an investigation into what became known as Iran-Contra, and he was active on the Foreign Relations Committee, eventually becoming its chair. Important stuff, to be sure, but for many in Massachusetts it felt as if Kerry was disengaged from their everyday lives.
Then there was his 2004 run for the presidency. Had Kerry won, there’s no question his legacy would have been secure; at the very least, school children would have been compelled to memorize his name along with those of other US presidents. One self-inflicted wound was particularly hurtful, perhaps costing him the election. Kerry has a tin ear. His comment on voting for something before voting against it was just a clumsy description of the legislative process, but it became an easy way for the George W. Bush campaign to tag him as a flip-flopper.
With Hillary Clinton’s planned retirement as secretary of state, Obama had initially favored Susan Rice, then his ambassador to the United Nations. But repercussions from the Benghazi mess – unjustified, as it turned out—doomed her chances and so Kerry was the president’s second pick. Given his decades-long interest in international politics, Kerry looked to have the perfect resume for the job. And he threw himself into the work, constantly in the air, inserting himself in all manner of controversies.
The results, however, have been middling. After enormous effort, Kerry was able to get Palestinians and Israelis to start peace talks. Those ultimately collapsed a year ago, amid harsh criticism from some in Israel and on Capitol Hill that Kerry had misread the prospects for an agreement. He became one of the loudest voices in the administration arguing for a military strike against Syria for its use of chemical weapons. Asked how a strike might be averted, Kerry flippantly said only if all the weapons were destroyed—“and it can’t be done, obviously.” Russia seized on the idea, however, and what at first had looked to be a blunder (Kerry has said it was intentional; at the time, however, his spokesperson was walking back his remark) became a policy.
Yet until Thursday even some of Kerry’s former allies and friends in the Senate had begun to harshly criticize his overall performance as America’s No. 1 diplomat. In 2013, John McCain—a fellow decorated veteran who once worked with Kerry on Vietnam normalization— called him a “human wrecking ball” for signing the interim deal with Iran that led to Thursday’s framework agreement (under that earlier deal, the West lifted some sanctions in exchange for Tehran’s pledge to suspend enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, or near-weapons-grade levels). And his critics have not been shy about accusing him of excessive ambition for a deal, any deal, that would secure his reputation as one of America’s great secretaries of state. (As the Israeli-Palestinian talks reached their climax, then-Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon reportedly mocked Kerry as “messianic” and jibed: “The only thing that can ‘save us’ is for John Kerry to win a Nobel Prize and leave us in peace.”)
Those who dislike Kerry–and they are legion–seized on a 2014 survey by Foreign Policy magazine of 1,615 scholars in international relations. Asked to name the most effective secretary of state of recent times, Kerry ranked last–13th–behind Henry Kissinger (1st), James Baker (3rd—just behind “Don’t know”) and Hillary Clinton (tied for 4th with Madeleine Albright). One can argue the ranking doesn’t yet mean much; the scholars weren’t saying Kerry was ineffective, just that others—most with far greater tenures—had been more effective. Still, it had to sting.
Those criticisms will continue. Hawks who oppose any kind of compromise at all with Iran quickly condemned Thursday’s deal, and they again floated suspicions that Kerry—and his president—were far too concessionary because of their desperation for a major diplomatic legacy. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry called the deal “riddled with concessions” and Sen. Tom Cotton, the freshman senator who has led GOP opposition in recent weeks, complained that “Iran will get massive sanctions relief up front, making potential ‘snap-back’ sanctions for inevitable Iranian violations virtually impossible.” Preemptively, Obama took on the same critics in Rose Garden remarks, saying: “Do you really think that this verifiable deal, if fully implemented, backed by the world’s major powers, is a worse option than the risk of another war in the Middle East? Is it worse than doing what we’ve done for almost two decades, with Iran moving forward with its nuclear program and without robust inspections?”
Should Kerry’s current efforts result in a lasting final bargain with Iran, one that years from now is seen as having stopped a nuclear arms race in the world’s most volatile region, more than Kerry’s Foreign Policy ranking will change. Kerry might well win the Nobel Peace Prize. And it would without question be a significant step forward in calming tensions in the region, perhaps— dreaming a bit—allowing Iran to rejoin a community of nations, helping restart negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians and even dampening the surge of ISIL-inspired terrorist activity.
Granted, it may be ambition that drives Kerry forward on the negotiations. The clock is ticking and one senses he has staked his entire career on getting to yes—perhaps, to the worry of many, at the risk of giving too much to the Iranians. Eventually, we and the world will make a judgment. If he succeeds, Kerry will have his legacy. If he fails, the Iranian negotiations will likely be the last in a long line of missed brass rings.
This column was first published in Politico on April 3, 2015.