Letter from Washington — From the December 2013 issue

Secretary of Nothing

John Kerry and the myth of foreign policy

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When former president Bill Clinton nominated Barack Obama for a second term at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, the hall was packed to the rafters with party dignitaries. One was conspicuous by her absence: Hillary Clinton, away on diplomatic business in East Timor. “For decades,” she said by way of explanation, “secretaries of state have not attended political conventions because of the nonpartisan nature of our foreign policy.”

Politicians love being thought of as nonpartisan and above the murky fray. That must explain why so many of them want to be secretary of state, even though the office confers little power of patronage (its choicest appointments — ambassadorships — being sold off by the president to the highest bidder), a puny budget, and none of the authority that comes from the ability to kill people or make them rich.

U.S. secretary of state John Kerry delivering remarks on the Syrian civil war at a press conference in Washington © Zhang Jun/Xinhua/Eyevine/Redux

U.S. secretary of state John Kerry delivering remarks on the Syrian civil war at a press conference in Washington © Zhang Jun/Xinhua/Eyevine/Redux

Nevertheless, two people very definitely wanted to be secretary of state in the first Obama Administration: Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico. Both deny it, of course. But Democratic Party sources insist that Obama, locked in a bitter nomination battle with Hillary Clinton, offered both men the coveted post in hopes of gaining their support when he needed it.

Richardson, who had served the Clinton Administration as secretary of energy and ambassador to the United Nations, was campaigning largely on the strength of his foreign-policy experience. But as the Iowa caucuses approached, he lagged at around 8 percent in the polls — far behind Obama and Clinton, but with enough supporters to make him an object of desire for both campaigns.

The Clintons believed they were safe from a Richardson defection, because he had served in Bill Clinton’s Cabinet and furthermore indicated he would make no such alliance. What prize could Obama dangle to sever the ties of loyalty and friendship? The choice was clear. He reportedly contacted Richardson days before the Iowa vote and offered him the State Department — confidentially, it being considered unseemly to allot Cabinet positions before the election. Richardson accordingly directed his caucus delegates to support Obama, to the fury of the Clintons. “I guess energy secretary and U.N. ambassador weren’t enough for him,” raged Bill Clinton as Obama won a decisive victory in Iowa on January 3. (Richardson insists the story is “totally false,” a slander spread by Clinton loyalists.)

The battle moved on, and Hillary Clinton surged back in New Hampshire, meaning that Obama was now obliged to hook a bigger fish. Kerry, though defeated by George W. Bush in 2004, remained a powerful presence among the Democrats, not least because he controlled a lucrative donor list with 3 million email addresses. Obama already owed much to the senator, who had selected him to make what became a career-defining address at the 2004 convention. (A friend of mine, a delegate, bumped into Obama later that night while he and another delegate were strolling outside the hall. “That showed some charisma,” said my friend’s companion in congratulation. “Some charisma?” replied Obama, irked at the qualifier.)

Now Kerry delivered an equally important favor, endorsing Obama just days after his potentially terminal defeat in New Hampshire. Beforehand, he is reported to have elicited a firm promise that he would be appointed secretary of state in November. Kerry’s chief of staff, David Wade, insists that “nothing like that ever happened, whatsoever.” But again, Democratic Party sources argue that there was indeed a quid pro quo, with Obama contradicting his earlier pledge.

Richardson still thought the job was his. In late March, he publicly endorsed Obama, causing the Clinton loyalist James Carville to pronounce him a “Judas.” The press, meanwhile, remained unaware of Obama’s warring commitments. In August, Richardson coyly admitted to the Albuquerque Journal that while “not launching a campaign” for the job, he did have hopes of selection for State. Kerry, running for reelection to the Senate, could not express such ambitions, though others touted his candidacy for Foggy Bottom.

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is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine. He writes frequently on defense and national affairs, and is the author, most recently, of Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy.

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  • J Borg

    I find this article a bit too cynical and devoid of fact. if the Kerry crew is keeping to itself, why should I take the opinion of those floating at the periphery as anything more than office gossip and innuendo? What about talking to the man himself and getting an official reaction?

    I’m daring to hope that we are at the cusp of some momentous changes for the better in the middle-east and cynicism, though healthy in moderate amounts, can be very deflating. I’d like to think that Kerry is really trying to negotiate a wider and larger peace that involves the big players who have historically been goaded and pummelled by the west for over a century, Egypt for over three of them.

  • Reid Singer

    It is really, really easy to make the argument that American foreign policy has always been tethered to domestic bickering and internal spats. Nor did the author have to dig deep for signs that Kerry’s sense progress in the Middle East may be chimeric, or that AIPAC is run by a small group of crazy people with way too much power. It’s hard to say how what this article adds to that — besides some office gossip, lots of unnamed sources, and sweeping cynicism (I agree with J Borg).

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