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John Kerry and the myth of foreign policy

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.

As we know, with the election satisfactorily concluded, Obama awarded the coveted position to the defeated Hillary — relief from four years of Clinton rancor being clearly worth breaking a promise or two. Richardson, after withdrawing his nomination for secretary of commerce, dropped out of politics. Kerry, reelected to the Senate, became chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

Former occupants of that chair had used it to make trouble, the best-known example being William Fulbright, who held regular, probing hearings on Vietnam between 1966 and 1971. The April 22, 1971, session had been notable for the dramatic testimony of a young war hero turned dissident, John Kerry, who thereby launched his political career.

By 1985, Kerry was himself a senator and a junior member of the same committee, where he oversaw commendable investigations into the links between covert operations in Central America and the narcotics trade, as well as (in partnership with John McCain) the POW/MIA racket. But when he took over the leadership post, in 2009, Kerry stopped rattling cages. There would be no Fulbright-style hearings on Afghanistan. The reason, said a close political colleague, was that Kerry “wants to be secretary of state.”

Four years later still, his time appeared to have come. Clinton was quitting the office in preparation, so all presumed, for a second run at the White House. But once again, it looked like politics would intervene.

To a considerable degree, the Obama national-security team in the first term had been an Irish affair — “three cold, hard Irishmen,” as one former State Department official recalled. This troika consisted of Tom Donilon, John Brennan (custodian of the drone-strike kill list), and Denis McDonough (who gradually took control of the National Security Council machinery). All three had earned Obama’s trust. Yet they had a potent rival in Susan Rice.

Rice had reportedly had her eye on the post of national-security adviser at the beginning of Obama’s first term, but had settled for U.N. ambassador, in which capacity she had been a forceful voice for active engagement in the Libyan civil war. Now it seemed possible that she would succeed in her bid for the security-adviser post — where she would present a major threat to the Irish junto. Donilon and McDonough (Brennan having gone to his reward as CIA director) floated a solution: Send her off to be secretary of state.

“Why not?” says a State Department official who observed these maneuvers. “All the power is in the White House anyway, and they would pick her staff — the assistant secretaries and so on. She’d be surrounded by their people and couldn’t make trouble.”

It was a reasonable scheme, but it fell apart after the jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012, killing Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. On television, Rice declared that the attack had been a spontaneous mob action — bringing down the wrath of Republicans, who accused her of engineering a cover-up and pledged to fight her confirmation for State. Obama gamely defended her, but Rice was soon forced to abandon her bid.

At long last, Obama fulfilled the promise he had made four years earlier and named Kerry to the post. Some suggested that the move had been impelled only by a prod from Kerry’s old friend John McCain, who expressed irritation that a senior senator was being treated with such scornful indifference.

After calling for “economic patriotism” during his confirmation hearing and hailing the “crippling sanctions” levied on Iran, Kerry was confirmed with enthusiastic bipartisan support. He now embarked on the final task of his career: constructing a legacy out of the unpromising materials of the Middle East peace process.

Thus did Kerry begin flying countless miles back and forth to Israel and its occupied territories. His initial goal was merely to promote talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. Before too many months had passed, however, locals began openly expressing derision at what they perceived as an empty exercise in political theater. Jeering at Kerry’s efforts, The Times of Israel invoked the old saw that insanity is repeating the same action again and again in hopes of obtaining a different result.

Uri Avnery, the veteran Israeli peace activist, meanwhile mocked the very notion of negotiations “between an almighty occupying power and an almost totally powerless occupied people.” The “full might of the United States” may well be behind Kerry, he wrote in his weekly column last June, but then added a crucial question: “Or is it?” Clearly, only Obama himself could impose a peace, which he was (and is) unlikely to attempt on behalf of anyone’s legacy but his own.

Kerry, it seems, had fallen into the trap of believing in the existence of something called “foreign policy,” divorced from domestic political interests. There is no such thing.

Edwin O’Connor made exactly this point in his 1956 political novel, The Last Hurrah. “We’re under the disadvantage of having to evolve a foreign policy that meets local requirements,” explains Frank Skeffington, an old-fashioned machine boss running for reelection in an East Coast port city modeled on Boston. “When you come right down to it, there are only two points that really count.”

Skeffington held up two fingers. “One,” he said, ticking the first, “All Ireland must be free. Two,” he said, ticking the second, “Trieste belongs to Italy. They count. At the moment the first counts more than the second, but that’s only because the Italians were a little slow in getting to the boats.”

Pundits, of course, are fond of remarking that “all politics is local.” They imagine they are quoting the late House speaker Tip O’Neill, though the maxim was coined by a journalist in 1932. O’Neill himself once defeated G.O.P. opposition to a billion-dollar jobs bill by listing all the bridges and infrastructure in Republican leader Robert Michel’s home district that would benefit from the legislation. But the idea that international politics follows the same rules, whether in democracies or dictatorships, and that all so-called foreign policy is actually a reflection of domestic factors, is too heretical to entertain — especially when it threatens a vast and flourishing intellectual industry.

Every year, thousands of young men and women graduate from the many schools of international relations around the United States, duly certified in the theory and practice of foreign policy and therefore qualified for a career slaloming between government, think tanks, and academia. Though they will have pored over such seminal texts as Joseph Nye’s Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era and Robert Keohane’s After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy, none of them will have heard of Bernard H. Barnett, an attorney who died in Atlanta in 1987. That is a pity. If the study of Barnett’s career formed even a tiny segment of any of the hundreds of international-relations courses currently on offer, students might get an inkling of just how chimerical their discipline truly is.

Barney, as everybody called him, specialized in tax matters, especially those involving large corporations, with particular emphasis on the oil industry. From his original base in Louisville, Kentucky, where he took an ambitious young Republican named Mitch McConnell under his wing, Barnett’s practice eventually extended to nine cities, the most important being Washington and Miami.

Apart from his legal gifts and aptitude as a businessman, Barnett was that rare thing in mid-twentieth-century America: a Jewish Republican. Not surprisingly, Republican politicians cherished his friendship, especially at election time, and eagerly hearkened to his pleas on behalf of Israel.

Preferring to work “out of the limelight,” as his son Charles told me recently, Barnett lent his name and public support to just a few uncontroversial entities, such as the United Jewish Appeal. Far more crucially, according to a source who knew him well, he crafted the legal framework for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The former Minnesota senator Rudy Boschwitz affectionately describes Barnett, whom he first met through the wealthy industrialist Max Fisher, as “a giant.” “Max and Barney cut a very wide swath both in the halls of Congress and among a series of Republican presidents,” Boschwitz told me, as they lobbied “strongly and effectively for the state of Israel in its young, formative years.”

AIPAC’s clout derives in large part from its ingenious structure, which enables it to operate simultaneously as a tax-exempt educational foundation, a lobbying operation, the coordinator of apparently independent local political-action committees, and an unregistered foreign agent. By the end of the Carter Administration, AIPAC had become a mighty political force, capable of swaying and even supervising the U.S. government’s actions in the Middle East.

Barnett’s role in these developments was noted in high places, specifically by Richard V. Allen, Ronald Reagan’s first national-security adviser, who felt that Barnett’s skills could profitably be deployed elsewhere. Campaigning in Miami in 1980, Allen had observed the viscerally anticommunist Cuban exile community, at the time racked with feuds and discord, and realized what formidable allies they could be — especially when dealing with a recalcitrant Congress controlled by Democrats.

“I approached the Cubans,” Allen told me recently. “They were already Reagan supporters, but loosely organized. I suggested they organize themselves like AIPAC.”

To teach them just how to accomplish this, Allen recommended Barney Barnett. In no time at all, the Cuban American National Foundation was up and running, structured precisely along AIPAC lines, with separate research, funding, and lobbying operations, while local chapters around the country forged financially lubricated ties to individual members of Congress in both parties.

Allen’s brainchild more than fulfilled its promise, not only lending support to Reagan’s bellicose initiatives in Central America but also helping to ensure that Florida, carried by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election, went overwhelmingly for Reagan in 1984. Barnett remained closely involved, housing CANF’s Washington operation in his law office at 1000 Thomas Jefferson Street, close to the Georgetown waterfront. “We were at one end,” recalls a lawyer who worked down the hall and was intimately familiar with the Barnett firm. “The Cubans were at the other, and there were a bunch of Israelis running in and out of a room in the middle with a high-security lock.”

Barnett’s passing was marked by brief and uninformative obituaries in the New York Times and the Palm Beach Post. (Jorge Mas Canosa, chairman of CANF, was one of the pallbearers at the funeral.) Yet the epitaph for this relative unknown could easily echo that of Christopher Wren, as inscribed on the great architect’s tombstone in the floor of St. Paul’s Cathedral: if you seek his memorial, look around you.

Thanks to Barnett’s ingeniously fashioned and highly efficient machine for distributing money to the campaign chests of legislators, no administration — and none but the most electorally suicidal of politicians — will dare defy AIPAC’s injunctions. Israelis themselves are awed by the lobby’s power. Uri Avnery vividly summed up the scene at AIPAC’s 2008 annual conference in a blog post:

All the three presidential hopefuls made speeches, trying to outdo each other in flattery. 300 Senators and Members of Congress crowded the hallways. Everybody who wants to be elected or reelected to any office, indeed everybody who has any political ambitions at all, came to see and be seen.

While the smaller and less affluent Cuban-American community never attempted to match AIPAC’s reach, they got what they needed: an ironclad veto on America’s relations with Fidel Castro and, no less important, a powerful role in the local and national politics of their adopted nation. Jorge Mas Canosa, for example, dominated Miami politics for nearly two decades. As one of his associates told the Miami Herald in 1992, “I can’t believe it. You sit there and watch him deal with [city] commissioners and he treats them like chauffeurs.” (This source also told the reporter that he would “be destroyed” if quoted by name.) Meanwhile, candidates for higher office in venues far from Florida, such as Joseph Lieberman in Connecticut and Robert Torricelli in New Jersey, eagerly solicited Mas Canosa’s endorsement. In return, they got a reliable partner proficient in trading votes and money (Torricelli alone collected $240,000) for power.

Needless to say, there is no mention of Barnett in those standard texts by Nye and Keohane, nor do AIPAC and CANF figure in the works of a towering eminence like the late Kenneth Waltz. Yet history clearly demonstrates that leaders — whether democrats or dictators — consistently keep their eye fixed on their own domestic political advantage, a fact ignored by professors and policy analysts, though sometimes acknowledged by politicians themselves.

Alexander Hamilton, for example, commented in Federalist No. 6 that innumerable wars originated “entirely in private passions; in the attachments, enmities, interests, hopes, and fears of leading individuals in the communities of which they are members.” As a principal illustration of this important truth, he cited the case of Pericles, lauded as one of the greatest statesmen of classical Athens, who “in compliance with the resentment of a prostitute, at the expense of much of the blood and treasure of his countrymen, attacked, vanquished, and destroyed the city of the Samnians” before igniting the disastrous Peloponnesian War in order to extricate himself from political problems back home.

Alert to the realities of international politics, Hamilton would have had little trouble appreciating the story related to me a few years ago by a former senior British intelligence official, describing how Greece came to join the European Union. According to this account, the British prime minister James Callaghan was hoping to promote Greece’s application for membership in 1976 as a means of appeasing Labour’s left-wingers, who were urging that the Greeks’ recent ejection of their fascist military regime be rewarded. But the bureaucrats of the European Commission took a dim view of the application, on the entirely accurate grounds that Greece’s economy was too backward to be allowed into the club.

Callaghan was despondent. At that point, the head of MI6, Sir Maurice Oldfield, appeared at 10 Downing Street to recommend that the prime minister phone a certain senior French government official and make a direct appeal to have the EC’s verdict set aside. Callaghan made the call — and to his surprise received immediate and enthusiastic approval for the proposal.

With the United Kingdom and France thus united, resistance in Brussels collapsed and the Greek application moved ahead. Later, Callaghan asked Oldfield for an explanation.

“It may be,” replied the spy chief, “that a certain patriotic Greek lady has been denying the pleasures of her bed to a senior French official unless and until her country’s application is accepted.” The intelligence proved correct. The French official’s private passion was satisfied, Greece joined the European Union and traded its drachmas for euros, and was thus launched on the road to its present state of beggary.

The historian Walter Karp also made clear the absurdity of the proposition that foreign and domestic policy are somehow separate, that presidents in trouble at home nevertheless conduct their foreign policy without regard for these difficulties. In his most important work, The Politics of War (1979), Karp illustrated his thesis by examining America’s entry into World War I. At the time, President Woodrow Wilson made an artful attempt to persuade both contemporaries and future generations that he was leading the country into the European slaughter only with the greatest reluctance, and in the face of dire provocation. In fact, according to Karp’s interpretation, Wilson — an unsavory egomaniac who brought Jim Crow to its apogee by segregating federal offices — was intent on dragging America into the war from the start, motivated by both personal ambition and urgent domestic political exigencies.

The erstwhile Princeton University president had ridden to the White House in 1912 on a reform ticket. Indeed, 70 percent of the votes in that year’s election were cast for the two progressive candidates, in hopes of extirpating Wall Street’s control of capital. “The privileged interests, the ‘money trust,’ ” wrote Karp, “seemed about to receive their death blow.”

However, Wilson’s own political beliefs ran in quite the opposite direction. His public conversion to the cause of reform was of recent vintage, driven by the need to secure progressive Republican support, but he privately regarded the movement as an obnoxious outbreak of “ill-humors.” So, to fulfill the bare minimum of the electorate’s expectations, he put through Congress a limited program to restrain banking and big business.

Not everyone was deceived. Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin described the 1913 act establishing the Federal Reserve as a “big bankers’ bill,” while another progressive Republican lawmaker said Wilson’s measures against the trusts had “not enough teeth to masticate successfully milk toast.” Wilson realized that he had better find some way of diverting the popular mood for change before the people woke up to his true inclinations and voted him out of office. The solution, he confided to his friend and adviser Colonel Edward House, was to “impel” the nation to “great national triumphs” abroad.

The outbreak of the world war in 1914 presented Wilson with the perfect opportunity to jettison the populist agenda. He announced in November of that year that the reform era was at an end, his legislation having satisfactorily remedied all the people’s grievances. Meanwhile, though publicly professing neutrality in the conflict, he spared no effort in assisting the British, notably in their campaign, illegal under international law and ruinous to Germany’s civilian population, to blockade that country’s food supply. Karp states flatly that from “autumn 1914 onward, the diplomacy of the United States would be conducted by Wilson and House not in the interests of America, not by the venerable traditions of the Republic,” but only to secure for the messianic Wilson what his friend and flatterer House described as “the noblest part that has ever come to a son of man.”

The part Wilson and his adviser had in mind was that of supervising the postwar peace, reshaping the world into a vaguely conceived “association of nations.” But reaching that position required a prior, active role in the war itself, and Wilson’s problem was that the American people wanted no part of it. Former president Theodore Roosevelt, himself eager for America to join the carnage, ruefully admitted in 1915 that an estimated 98 percent of Americans saw no reason whatsoever why they should become involved.

Eventually it was left to the British to relieve the president of his predicament, handing over an intercepted message from the German foreign minister to the German ambassador in Mexico with instructions to propose an alliance with the Mexican government should the United States enter the war — the famous Zimmermann telegram. Its public release had the desired effect, generating a wave of war hysteria and xenophobia in the press, which was in turn encouraged by the financiers and munitions profiteers who now formed the president’s core constituency. Wilson got his war.

Following Germany’s defeat, Wilson embarked on phase two of his overall plan: to play that “noblest part.” But it all went wrong. Although the masses gave him an ecstatic greeting on his arrival in Europe to supervise the peace conference, the wily politicians at the head of the French and British governments were bent on advancing their own agendas. They proved notably uncooperative in framing Wilson’s pet scheme, the League of Nations, as he had envisioned it. Returning home to secure the necessary domestic endorsement for the league, he faced an angry and vengeful populace. Wilson, as Karp puts it, had “deceived and betrayed his countrymen, had falsely maneuvered them into war, had robbed them of their peace, their hopes, and the lives of 116,708 of their sons.” What sort of welcome did he expect?

In an acid summation near the end of his story, Karp notes:

[T]oday, American children are taught in our schools that Wilson was one of our greatest Presidents. That is proof in itself that the American Republic has never recovered from the blow he inflicted on it.

Dying at the hands of clumsy doctors in 1989, Karp was at least spared the rapturous applause that greeted the publication earlier this year of A. Scott Berg’s best-selling Wilson, whose heroic protagonist lived “to renew ideals.” Yet the illusion of a freestanding foreign policy, which Karp worked so hard to banish, remains stubbornly intact.

Some might cite the contrary example of the Dulles brothers, John Foster and Allen, who wielded great power in the 1950s as heads of the State Department and the CIA, respectively, and who appear to have pursued a foreign policy of militant anticommunism devoid of domestic considerations. Yet they served at the pleasure of a master, President Eisenhower. So when Secretary Dulles urged an initiative contrary to Ike’s political requirements, such as dispatching American troops to Vietnam in 1954, the boss had no hesitation in peremptorily quashing the idea.

In a similar vein, foreign-policy treatises tend to dodge the role of oil corporations in directing U.S. policy in the Muslim Middle East, though accounts of the CIA’s 1953 Iranian coup can hardly ignore the fact. Those same treatises also tiptoe around figures such as Bruce Jackson, vice president for international operations at Lockheed in the 1990s, who successfully lobbied for the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, even at the expense of the United States breaking a solemn promise to the Russians.

President Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 might also appear to have been purely a foreign-policy exercise. But the transcripts of Kennedy’s meetings during the crisis indicate clearly that his prime consideration was the domestic political impact of allowing the Soviets to base missiles so close to the United States.

On the other side of the crisis, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev appears to have authorized the missile deployment to patch over problems with his military, who were chafing both at a reduction in troop levels and at Khrushchev’s failure to deliver promised production of ICBMs. Meanwhile, Kennedy had famously told the CIA he didn’t want to know about Khrushchev’s problems with his generals. Such domestic spats struck him as an irrelevant distraction.

Yet in a fascinating book on Soviet foreign policy of the era, Public Policy in an Authoritarian State: Making Foreign Policy During the Brezhnev Years (1993), Richard Anderson proves that the opposite was true. Such weighty developments as changing relations with Eastern European satellite states, or arms-control talks with the West, often hinged on the domestic tug-of-war between the paramount leader Leonid Brezhnev and his rivals in the party hierarchy.

Obsessed with beating one another, Soviet officials consistently enacted foreign policies that damaged Soviet interests at home and abroad. Their American counterparts ignored what was going on in the Soviet Union because they were concentrating just as hard on their own electoral battles. They were caught flat-footed when the bickering in Moscow handed them victory in the Cold War, freeing Eastern Europe in 1989 and tearing apart the Soviet Union itself two years later.

People, Anderson told me, think political campaigning is all about winning votes. But that ignores the copious evidence of continual skirmishing between Brezhnev and his peers: “To exercise power, you have to have supporters, whether they vote or not. Foreign policy is a way of buying support.”

“It’s ridiculous to talk about U.S. foreign policy,” adds Joel McCleary, who has had ample opportunity to ponder the matter over recent decades as a former Democratic Party official and international financial and political consultant. “It’s a platonic form, without concrete substance. You could say there are U.S. foreign policies,” he continued. He cited his experience as an unofficial State Department envoy dispatched to Zimbabwe in 2002. “I was meant to be discussing a transition from Mugabe,” he told me. “But when I got there, I found the Pentagon was using him for renditions, and he wasn’t going anywhere.”

McCleary, who had been studying the social life of bees when I called him, suggested that the only time the term “foreign policy” might have any validity is when all the various elements of power in Washington decide to move in the same direction, “like a swarm. Tonkin Gulf was a swarm. Iraq in 2003 was a swarm. Of course,” he added, “swarms don’t always lead to good results.”

As he doggedly flew back and forth between the United States and Israel during the spring and summer of 2013, spending up to fourteen hours closeted with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (and almost as much with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas), John Kerry was by no means part of a swarm. State Department officials fulminated that he was “running the place like his Senate office, with no connection to the rest of the building” — meaning that he was relying on a small coterie of advisers he had brought with him from Capitol Hill. Some noted that he seemed unaware of the ever greater importance of Asian powers.

“His view of Asia is thirty years out of date,” one former senior official told me. “He doesn’t realize how dynamic the region is. One thing the Israelis and Palestinians have in common is the fear that the Americans will turn all their attention to Asia. That’s why they tell Kerry, ‘We’re so close to an agreement,’ and he believes them!”

Kerry’s determination to make a personal impact regardless of political realities extended beyond his focus on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. At one moment when he briefly turned his attention to Asia, for example, he considered cutting back the planned U.S. missile-defense program in the Pacific if China would help rid North Korea of nuclear weapons. He even hinted at a possible summit between the United States and Kim Jong Un.

Ignoring Obama’s manifest determination to avoid any entanglement in the Syrian civil war, Kerry also plowed ahead with efforts to persuade the Russians to cooperate in ejecting the Assad regime, implicitly criticizing the president for not having done more. “This is a very difficult process, which we come to late,” he observed stiffly at the beginning of June.

Needless to say, none of this went down well in the Oval Office. “There’s only room for one narcissist in this administration,” quipped a former White House official. “If Obama disliked Richard Holbrooke, he really dislikes John Kerry.”

Matters might have continued in this fashion, with Kerry jetting back and forth in futile isolation, had not a horrible tragedy in a Damascus suburb, vividly communicated by footage of dozens of dead and dying children, induced a seismic shift in the global political landscape. It was now politically impossible for Obama to ignore calls for some sort of military reaction, a course urged by both Kerry and Susan Rice, the habitual interventionist. It appeared that, once again, Washington was getting ready to swarm.

Yet Obama, ever the cautious politician, had no desire to leave a flank exposed to his Republican opposition by striking without their explicit endorsement, and so delayed the punitive attack on Syria pending congressional approval. Kerry eagerly joined the promotional effort, exhorting members of Congress not to ignore “our Munich moment” and comparing Syrian civilians to Jewish refugees being sent back to face Hitler’s gas chambers.

In his derisive post on Kerry’s peace-process odyssey, Uri Avnery recalled an earlier and equally fruitless initiative by a long-forgotten U.N. envoy named Gunnar Jarring, who had shuttled back and forth between Israel and Egypt to no avail. Then came the surprise Egyptian attack across the Suez in October 1973 — and, as Avnery put it, “the whole political world started to move.” Peace between the two countries ensued with remarkable speed, culminating in the Camp David Accords just five years later.

Obama’s attempt to get congressional approval for the Syria strike may have been a similarly world-moving moment. I refer not to the request itself but to the American public’s reaction. For years, our political leaders have taken for granted popular acquiescence in whatever drive-by shooting they have in mind, with “foreign policy” invoked as a handy rubber stamp. But that weekend in September, even as Kerry and Obama and Rice sought to whip Congress into line, the American people suddenly revealed that they, too, had a foreign policy. A wave of calls and emails swept over Capitol Hill, overwhelmingly denouncing the proposed attack. Even Barney Barnett’s legacy, in the form of a mass AIPAC lobbying effort, could not prevail against this tide.

Then John Kerry finally found his long-awaited moment, with an offhand answer to an unexpected and unprompted question about Assad’s options for avoiding a strike. As peace, not just with Syria but with Iran too, suddenly appeared an advantageous option, the secretary of state was swept along, growing tall in the theatrical role he had coveted for so long, though playing the part not as Talleyrand or Metternich, but as Chauncey Gardiner.

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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