Analysis: Ambition and anguish drive John Kerry

Obama introduced John Kerry as the nominee at a press conference Friday. Obama introduced John Kerry as the nominee at a press conference Friday. Carolyn Kaster/AP

What kind of secretary of State will John Kerry be? The best answer to that question probably lies in something Kerry said 41 years ago, long before he became a politician—a statement that is still, unquestionably, the most memorable thing Kerry has ever said. With his thick hair gone gray, his long face looking longer and more world-weary with the years, it’s easy to forget that this is the same John Kerry who rocketed to national celebrity in April 1971 in a riveting appearance before the sameSenate Foreign Relations Committee he now chairs.

Kerry was then a 27-year-old Navy lieutenant who had lost his best friend, Dick Pershing, in Vietnam. The newly returned vet was anguished about his own guilt, having admitted on Meet the Press that he had “committed the same kinds of atrocities as thousands of others in that I shot in free-fire zones … joined in search-and-destroy missions, and burned villages.” Despite his Silver Star and three purple hearts, Kerry had also decided the whole war was terribly wrong, and the cost of its needless expansion was now being counted in the young Americans still dying needlessly, day after day. “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Kerry asked the rapt senators in a quavering voice.

It is a question that has resonated through the years, on through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even driving Bruce Springsteen to write a song (“Last to Die”) and pen a note to Kerry on the album cover (which hangs on his Senate office wall): “John, thanks for the inspiration.” It is also a point of view that he shares with the man who has just nominated him to be secretary of State, Barack Obama—Kerry is expected to be easily confirmed—who has repeatedly made clear that war must always be a last resort.

According to Kerry aides and friends, the experience of bitter personal loss in a war he thought never should have been fought has since shaped his entire political career, and it will unquestionably shape what is expected to be the tenure of a decidedly activist secretary. “Kerry knows the cost of ignoring diplomacy, of seeing foreign policy through a military prism,” says Jonah Blank, a former key aide to Kerry on the Foreign Relations Committee.  “He really believes in the power of diplomacy. He’s the kind of person who’s going to get on a plane when other people without his experience might say it’s a waste of time.”

Beyond that, Kerry is plainly ambitious. It’s not just that his chance at State is almost certainly, for Kerry, the last brass ring in a political career once so full of promise, but which all but ended with a humiliating loss to George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election, a defeat that left a sour taste because of his apparent passivity in the face of outrageous slanders about his Vietnam war service. It’s also that, as historian Douglas Brinkley, a Kerry biographer, writes in Foreign Policy, Kerry, the son of a career Foreign Service officer, “was raised to be a public servant.”  “I think he really would like to go down as one of the great secretaries of State,” says Blank.

To do that, Kerry knows he must go beyond what his friend and predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has done. Clinton has reset America’s diplomatic agenda, and is leaving office as a popular public figure, but she has no signature diplomatic triumph or doctrine to her name. During her tenure she left most high-level mediation to regional envoys such as George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke.

Kerry knows he must get his hands dirty with direct mediation, and he has far more experience at that than Clinton does. As chairman he has made many restless trips abroad and carried the administration’s water in the well of the Senate, marshaling votes on the START pact, leading a valiant if failed effort on climate change, and mediating in Sudan. Another reason Kerry is Obama’s pick is that he served an invaluable role in bringing Hamid Karzai along in Afghanistan long after other key envoys, including Richard Holbrooke, had given up on the Afghan president. Kerry also knows that is likely to be in a part of the world that looks all but intractable right now: the Middle East. While there are no immediate prospects for peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, Kerry would be expected to play a key role in overseeing transition in Syria and continuing to isolate Iran. He will also undoubtedly be the point person in pushing Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who is also a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood group that gave birth to Hamas, to play a broker’s role in breaking through the diplomatic permafrost that has prevented negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians for most of the 21st century.

As Brinkley puts it: “Just as he learned everything he could about Southeast Asia from the 1960s to the 1990s, Kerry has amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of the Middle East—often putting him ahead of his potential future boss on the region's urgent crises. He was the first senator to call for President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to step down, pressed the administration to create a no-fly zone in Libya to topple Muammar el-Qaddafi, and has been a sharp critic of Syria's murdering of its own citizens, having meticulously tested Bashar al-Assad's willingness to change his ways in 2009 and come away unimpressed." 

A key issue will be Kerry’s relationship with Obama, which is seen as compatible in personality and worldview without being cozy. Indeed, Kerry will always be aware that he was the president’s second choice after U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who withdrew from consideration after coming under intense fire from Republican critics. Rice, said one Obama aide, represented “Obama’s foreign policy in a way that Kerry doesn’t, in other words a new way of being a Democrat on foreign policy.” It was a reference to Obama’s carefully cultivated self-image as a tough commander in chief willing to apply diplomatic leverage to get what he wants and use power aggressively, especially covertly. Still, this aide said, Obama has enormous respect for Kerry.

As ever with Kerry, caution and passion will remain at war inside him. Some who are loyal to him think that he wants to be a pragmatic elder statesman but the restless young Kerry, the war veteran inside him, won’t allow it. “There’s a side of him that doesn’t want to be Henry Kissinger, that still wants to be the John Kerry of 1971,” one of his advisers told me in 2010. 

Holbrooke, perhaps the foremost U.S. diplomat of his generation until his sudden death in December 2010, said in one of his last interviews that Kerry’s reduced political horizons have made him a much better public official. “He reached for the biggest of the brass rings, which he had spent his whole life preparing for,” Holbrooke said in an interview with National Journal. “Then he hoped to be Obama’s running mate, hoped to be Obama’s secretary of State. He got nothing, and emerged as chairman of this committee, and one of the most effective ones ever, in terms of his focus and his activism abroad.”

No doubt we’ll see even more of that John Kerry in the years ahead.

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