WASHINGTON — John F. Kerry has a history of speaking his mind, both in speeches and in off-the-cuff remarks. It is a habit that over the course of his long public career has sometimes haunted him.
He became a national figure in 1971, when he said many members of the military in Vietnam, including himself, had committed atrocities, a statement his detractors criticized during his 2004 presidential run. During that failed campaign, he was also accused of being a “flip-flopper” for the clumsy way he explained his votes on Iraq War funding: “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”
Now, as secretary of state, where carefully articulated positions are the ingredients of successful international diplomacy — and where misstatements of policy or inartful comments can reverberate through foreign capitals — Kerry has made several remarks this year that his staffers have been forced to clarify or disavow.
“The Senate is a place where you can speak your mind and say things philosophically in line with your beliefs,” said William S. Cohen, a former secretary of defense and senator from Maine. “When you go on the team of the president, you are no longer a free agent. You have to really take care to make sure whatever you say is consistent with the president’s policies and positions. You have to stay out of the headlines.”
At times, Kerry has struggled to keep his comments out of the headlines. One unscripted moment was highlighted earlier this month when he challenged Syria to give up its chemical weapons in a week to avoid a US military strike. His aides quickly clarified the remark, saying that he was being “rhetorical,” only to later embrace the statement when it became clear that it might lead to a peaceful resolution of the issue. Russia seized on the comment and Syria agreed to it.
It is too early to say whether the deal will succeed, but some believe Kerry’s remark developed into a breakthrough that might not have happened had he been reading from a script.
“In retrospect, what he said in London was not a misstep,” said P.J. Crowley, who served as chief spokesman for Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton.
Yet other proclamations have turned out to be verbal missteps, touching on US policy toward Syria, Iran, North Korea, and Egypt. Kerry said on MSNBC on Sept. 5 that he “opposed” [President Bush’s] decision to go into Iraq” even though he voted in favor of the use of force in 2002, before he became an opponent of US military involvement. Fact checkers at the Washington Post awarded him four “Pinocchios,” its worst rating, for the claim.
Kerry’s aides declined to speak on the record about his misstatements and would only address, speaking on condition of anonymity, what they called unfair criticism. They said that Kerry speaks thousands of words every day in speeches and press conferences and that to focus on a few mistakes is mean-spirited. They noted he is growing in stature and influence in the administration.
Indeed, despite the slip-ups, Kerry’s star appears to be rising, both within the Obama administration, which has made him the chief messenger and problem-solver on Syria, and among the American people. According to a Gallup poll released this week, 60 percent of Americans said Kerry is doing a good job, higher than both the president and vice president.
Kerry, of course, is hardly the only administration to misspeak occasionally. It was President Obama who made an apparently off-hand reference warning that Syria would be punished if it crossed the “red line” of using chemical weapons. Without public or congressional support for a strike against Syria, Obama’s threat has not yet been fulfilled.
Kerry’s series of questionable remarks have ranged from inartful phrasings to misstatements that have generated immediate controversy:
■ On Egypt, Kerry said last month that in ousting President Mohammed Morsi, the military was “restoring democracy.” Some critics said that undermined the American position in the region, feeding suspicions that Washington supported the overthrow of that nation’s only democratically elected leader. Kerry later clarified his statement, saying that the “temporary government has a responsibility with respect to demonstrators to give them the space to be able to demonstrate in peace.”
■ On Syria, Kerry was criticized by leading members of Congress this month for saying, as a way of building domestic and international support, that any US trike to punish the regime of President Bashar Assad would be “unbelievably small.”
Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and a vocal supporter of a more muscular US approach, called the statement “unbelievably unhelpful.”
Even Obama was forced to distance himself from Kerry’s description, saying “the US does not do pinpricks.”
■ On North Korea, Kerry was seen as freelancing when he appeared to offer China a deal in return for its help with Pyongyang. Kerry, traveling in Beijing, said that the United States would remove some of its new missile defense systems in the region if China helped persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
Kerry told reporters the next day “there have been no agreements, no discussions, there is nothing actually on the table with respect to that.”