Letter from Washington — From the December 2013 issue

Secretary of Nothing

John Kerry and the myth of foreign policy

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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.

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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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