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John Kerry’s first year marked by big risks

John Kerry has spent 622 hours living on a plane and has made the rounds in his effort to get a lot done.Jason Reed/Reuters

WASHINGTON — The first time John Kerry boarded the Boeing 757 he uses to soar around the globe as secretary of state, he bounded up the stairs in a blue knit sweater and jeans, a thick briefing binder tucked under his arm.

With the sun rising over Andrews Air Force Base, a group of photographers gathered on the tarmac to capture the nation’s new top diplomat leaving on his first overseas mission.

But Kerry — the man who Massachusetts insiders decades ago gave the nickname “Live Shot” for his eagerness to appear in front of a camera — forgot to turn and wave.


Since that first trip, the former Massachusetts senator has been engaged in a headlong rush of international diplomacy in a host of hot spots that often makes him appear more energetic and ambitious than his predecessor, Hillary Clinton.

Kerry exhibits a bullish optimism about the prospect for lasting agreements that would end the civil war in Syria, solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. But he is also risking great failure, and skeptics say he is viewing the world through rose-colored glasses, with America’s prestige hanging in the balance.

“The thing that surprises me about Kerry is his willingness to take risks,” said Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security and a former national security staffer for Senator John McCain. “He is not afraid to fail, and that to me seems to be one of his defining characteristics as secretary of state.”

John Kerry met with Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai in October.Mohammad Ismail/REUTERS

Indeed, his combination of physical endurance and diplomatic determination have impressed supporters and detractors alike; those who have witnessed his frenetic public pace for years describe Kerry, who turned 70 this month, as appearing more youthful than ever.

“He has thrown himself into it completely,” said Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.


Kerry has flown more miles than any first-year secretary of state in recent memory — even more than the jet-setting Clinton.

According to his office, he has logged 286,819 miles over 135 days. He has spent a cumulative 622 hours — nearly 26 days — living on an airplane, where he is known to walk the aisles in socks and an orange-hooded sweat shirt and where crew members stock his favorite Oreo cookies.

He used those travels to plant the seeds for possible breakthroughs in the Middle East: He persuaded Israelis and Palestinians to restart peace talks; he helped cut a deal with the Russians to remove chemical weapons in Syria and avert a threatened US military strike; and he laid the groundwork for a lasting agreement with Iran to constrain its ability to develop nuclear weapons.

But some of his critics say that Kerry is devoting too much time to hopeless missions, and that he is trying to solve too many problems by merely talking and not enough by leveraging the coercive power of American military and economic might.

“I think that John, in his zeal — which I admire enormously — he believes the world is what he wants it to be, and not what it actually is,” McCain said in an interview.

McCain recently called Kerry “a human wrecking ball,” and said he was so unfocused that, “They don’t know from one hour to the next where the plane is going.”


Those public comments triggered a phone call from Kerry and a discussion that McCain, in an apparent understatement, called “spirited.”

Tangible progress seen

Kerry was unavailable for an interview to reflect on his first year on the job, according to his staff. Yet for many in and out of government who have been tracking his activities over the past year, the secretary has managed — mostly by sheer will — to make real progress in addressing a number of vexing problems at a time when the rest of Washington seems paralyzed.

“Here is a guy who is reported to have said to friends and others ‘I won’t have another job. This will probably be my last opportunity in political life and I am prepared to take risks,’ ” said Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering , a former under secretary of state. “He has convinced a White House that is mostly risk averse and he has been given some running room. That is unusual.”

In November, Kerry stood with foreign ministers from Iran, China, Russia, and France in Geneva.FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Pickering, citing the secretary of state’s efforts in Syria, Iran, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said Kerry “has been unusually busy and moving around and visited a lot of places and done a lot of things.”

Kerry assumed his post with some political disadvantages. The Obama administration sent signals that Kerry was not President Obama’s first choice for the job. Anonymous sources in the White House repeatedly floated Susan Rice as his preferred pick. But Rice faced such opposition in the Senate that Obama appointed her instead to be his national security adviser, a position that didn’t require confirmation hearings.


Kerry also came into the job after Clinton, who was a dominating force. She won the job just months after losing the Democratic presidential primary to Obama. She was well-known and popular around the globe, and had a well of support in the United States. One photograph of her wearing sunglasses while typing on her BlackBerry went viral.

But she also was seen as more cautious, perceived to be preserving political capital for a 2016 presidential run, and tightly controlled by the White House, which did not want her to outshine a then-neophyte president with scant foreign policy experience.

“Can a man actually run the State Department? I don’t know,” Kerry joked as he addressed the staff at the State Department for the first time. “As the saying goes, I have big heels to fill.”

But he quickly plunged into the job. Some of the criticisms that hindered his 2004 presidential campaign — that he was a Francophile fluent in several languages, that he could speak at length without hammering home a clear idea — have become some of his best assets in international diplomacy.

He now addresses reporters and dignitaries in Norwegian, Spanish, Italian, and German. In August, he opened a press conference in Paris by addressing the French people — in French, as the American reporters traveling with him listened on headsets as his words were translated.

From his first days in the job, Kerry has shown a penchant for seeking major breakthroughs — not incremental pacts — to address some of the most intractable foreign policy challenges.


Calling on some of his longtime relationships with top Russian officials, Kerry early on sought to broker an end to the bloodshed in Syria — where more than 125,000 have died in the civil war — by pushing for a political settlement that would remove Syrian President Bashar Assad from power.

He made little progress, so when Assad’s regime used chemical weapons against its own people, Kerry quickly became the leading voice for the Obama administration in making the case for punitive military strikes.

But it was his last-minute rhetorical suggestion — saying that if Syria gave up its chemical arms swiftly it could avoid military retaliation from the United States — that triggered a flurry of diplomacy and led to an agreement by the Syrian regime to give up its chemical weapons.

Critics, however, say the Obama administration, including Kerry, has not done enough to help the more moderate elements of the Syrian rebellion seeking to oust Assad, even as Islamic radicals allied with Al Qaeda have taken on a more prominent role in the armed opposition.

Kerry is currently spearheading efforts to convene a new Syrian peace conference in Geneva, which is scheduled to begin Jan. 22.

Meanwhile, he has aggressively pursued peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, despite being roundly criticized by the foreign policy establishment as naive for thinking that he can somehow achieve what has eluded American leaders for decades.

On nine separate trips to the region, he shuttled back and forth for marathon meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and left behind a trusted team of negotiators to keep up the pressure.

Ultimately, Kerry persuaded both sides to sit down for direct talks for the first time in years. Those negotiations started in July, with the aim of forging a final agreement by April. Kerry will head back to the region on New Year’s Day to confer with leaders from both sides.

Kerry also worked steadily behind the scenes to try to reach a breakthrough with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, relying in part on a secret diplomatic channel he opened through the government of Oman back in 2011, when he was still in the Senate.

That approach proved crucial in helping secure a six-month agreement between Iran and world powers to temporarily halt its enrichment of uranium in exchange for a relaxation of economic sanctions.

But the hard work of achieving a lasting and verifiable agreement still lies ahead. And some of Kerry’s biggest skeptics on the Iran gamble include Israel and many of his former colleagues in Congress.

Credit for trying hard

Indeed, most observers say Kerry’s chances for success on these fronts are slim, but they give him credit for pushing harder than anyone.

“He has tried to hit the long ball. . . . Kerry has taken the thorny, thorny stuff and said, ‘I’ll do these,’ ” said Peter Feaver, who worked on the Bush administration’s National Security Council.

Still, Feaver agreed he ultimately will be judged on results.

“He gets points for trying but he hasn’t actually produced,” Feaver said. “And some of the criticisms against what he’s done is that he’s committed American prestige and this could ultimately be an unsuccessful effort, when a more strategic picking-your-battles might have been better.”

Kerry doesn’t drink coffee, and isn’t known to down a Red Bull, usually opting for water during long meetings. Even younger aides are amazed at his stamina, and struggle to keep up.

He works out in the gym, and usually has a bike in his hotel rooms where he tries to get in at least 20 minutes of exercise.

He also pushes for walks: with aides, to clear the air; with foreign leaders to cut a deal; or at the end of a meeting, as he did during a 3 a.m. walk in Jerusalem after long talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

After securing a deal on chemical weapons, he went to the Swiss Mountains for an hourlong walk to clear his head. It was on that walk when Obama called him to thank him for his efforts.

Although one knock on Kerry has been that he can be excessively long-winded, he has also shown another kind of stamina: Job-like ability to listen to world leaders for hours.

Kerry chatted with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in October.Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

Dating back to his years in the Senate, it is one reason Kerry has often been relied on to negotiate with the notoriously difficult Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

He has also honed what by many accounts is a solid working relationship with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, despite deep rifts between the two countries’ leaders; Lavrov once said Hillary Clinton’s criticism of his country bordered “on the verge of hysteria.”

Yet some foreign policy experts are worried that Kerry is spending too much energy on the Middle East, and not drawing enough attention to other issues and regions. One is the Asia-Pacific.

Under Clinton, the Obama administration underwent a “pivot to Asia,” with more emphasis put on a region where communist China is a growing global economic and military powerhouse, the reclusive North Korean regime is a nuclear threat, and territorial disputes abound.

“He’s spending a lot of time in the Middle East on policies that are not going that well, which has potential cost for other areas of the world,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign affairs specialist at the Brookings Institution. “I am worried that the rebalance [in Asia] is being deflated somewhat.”

“I’m glad he’s investing time in [the Israeli-Palestinian peace process],” O’Hanlon added. “But it’s a huge gamble. If he invests all this time and energy into the 15 million people in Israel and the [Palestinian] territories, but not the three billion people in the Asian Pacific . . . that’s not going to look like such a smart decision in the end.”

Others like Pickering also fear a consequence of Kerry’s approach may be too little attention to what he calls “the Washington side” of his job — such as advising the president and helping to lay the groundwork for more long-term foreign policy goals.

“A lot of people in the State Department complain he is isolated on the seventh floor when he is there and he is gone so much they’re not sure what he wants to do,” said Pickering, who co-chaired the special panel that investigated the deadly attacks on US embassy personnel in Libya in 2011.

Defends travel schedule

Kerry evidently believes he can do it all.

For one, his aides bristle at the suggestion that just because he is on the road so frequently he is neglecting his duties in Washington.

They say he has built strong management and policy teams at the State Department and is connected on a daily basis with the White House, the diplomatic corps at home and abroad, and a variety of key government leaders.

But he has clearly decided that the biggest payoff — at least early in his tenure — will be derived from his personal brand of diplomacy.

Recently it was in Asia, where State Department officials note that he has spent more time during his first year than Clinton did — including a stop earlier this month in Vietnam, where he served as a decorated patrol boat commander during the Vietnam War and his life in the limelight first began.

His determination to build new alliances and advance international peace where others have failed — or run himself ragged trying — was on display at the ornate Iikura Guest House in downtown Tokyo in early October.

Kerry had arrived along with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel for a rare dual meeting with their Japanese counterparts to sign a new military cooperation agreement.

As the four men made statements and took questions from the press, Kerry spent much of the time hacking into a handkerchief and blowing his nose, battling a stubborn cold that aides said had been dogging him for days.

At one point the Japanese foreign minister leaned over and asked if he was OK. He nodded, dismissing his concerns with a wave. Kerry was not about to take a break.

Moments later he was whisked away to report on the meetings to the Japanese president, and to congratulate him on Tokyo winning the honor of hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics.

“We hope we’re well enough to come,” Kerry joked.

Then he was off again, this time to Indonesia for an economic summit and to stand in for President Obama, who had to cancel his travel plans due to the government shutdown.

After that? At the time, even his staff wasn’t sure.

Matt Viser can be reached at