When President Obama chose John Kerry as his secretary of state, a headline in Foreign Policy magazine declared that the longtime Massachusetts senator and son of a career Foreign Service officer was about to get the job “he was always meant to have.”

As that old saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

Fast forward two years, and a recent headline in the same publication now advises: “How John Kerry can find success in the ashes of Middle East peace.” Kerry deserves credit for pushing the dialogue forward between the Israelis and Palestinians, and given the politics and history of similar efforts, it’s hard to pin a failed Mideast deal solely on him. That hasn’t stopped related media coverage from being far less generous — thanks to another of the secretary’s serial gaffes.

Kerry generated serious backlash after he told a group of senior officials that Israel runs the risk of becoming “an apartheid state” if no peace deal with Palestine is reached in the near future. The meeting was supposed to be off the record, but no one, from Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling to the US secretary of state, should ever count on privacy anymore. A tape recording was made, and the news, first reported by the Daily Beast, spun out from there.

Was Kerry jet-lagged from trying too hard in too many places? Or was the diplomat simply going rogue, saying what he thinks should be said in a tough, Putin-colored world?


Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s renowned anti-apartheid leader, approved, but Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, did not. Via Twitter, Boxer said: “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and any linkage between Israel and apartheid is nonsensical and ridiculous.”

It goes without saying Republicans jumped on it. Texas Senator Ted Cruz went as far as to call for Kerry to resign.

From a diplomatic perspective, the remark angered Jewish leaders and Israeli officials — even if it is a reference some themselves have used.

But probably most awkward for Kerry: His words ran up against Obama’s views. In a 2008 interview, then-Senator Obama said, “There’s no doubt that Israel and the Palestinians have tough issues to work out to get to the goal of two states living side by side in peace and security, but injecting a term like ‘apartheid’ into the discussion doesn’t advance the goal. It’s emotionally loaded, historically inaccurate, and it’s not what I believe.”


Still, the White House stuck by Kerry after he apologized for the comparison, even backing him up on the basic sentiment that the “desired outcome here [is] via a two-state solution in which there is a sovereign Palestinian state and a democratic, Jewish state of Israel that is secure and safe.”

Perhaps Kerry is hoping the “apartheid” remark will somehow end up in the winning category like the off-hand remark he made last summer that an American military campaign in Syria could be avoided if only Syrian president Bashar Assad turned over his country’s chemical weapons cache. In that case, the State Department similarly rushed to walk back the quip as it did with the “apartheid” comment this week. But then Syria and close ally Russia surprised everyone by suggesting Kerry’s unscripted solution could work.

Unfortunately, though he managed to avoid sending US bombers into Syria, Kerry has done little to deter Assad from waging war on his own people.

And it is not hard to foresee similar results in recent efforts to convince Vladimir Putin to leave Ukraine in peace. The Russian president seems likewise dismissive of US warnings — despite the State Department tweets that critics have derided as a “hashtag war on Putin.”


The American public usually pays scant attention to the nuances of foreign policy. It’s far more fascinated by the nuances of V. Stiviano’s relationship with Sterling, the 80-year-old billionaire she tape-recorded. But Americans do understand the general proposition that words have power and so must Kerry. He certainly has been tripped up by them before. (“I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”)

If Kerry were truly born to be secretary of state, it’s time for him to reclaim his diplomatic birthright.

More coverage: Editorial: Kerry’s ‘apartheid’ flap: wrong word, right issue

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.