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Why John Kerry could be a better secretary of state than Hillary Clinton

By Aaron David Miller,

Aaron David Miller is vice president for new initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He served for two decades as an adviser to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations.

George Marshall. Dean Acheson. Henry Kissinger. James Baker.

These are the sorts of names you’d see in a Secretary of State Hall of Fame, if such a thing existed. Enshrinement would depend on negotiating a consequential agreement, defusing a major crisis, articulating a successful doctrine or fashioning a strategy for peace or war that puts you at the center of American foreign policy.

Hillary Rodham Clinton didn’t get there. But John Kerry might.

This isn’t a knock on Clinton’s abilities or record, nor is it excessive optimism about what Kerry might achieve as secretary of state. Rather, it’s a recognition that 90 percent of success in life isn’t merely showing up — it’s showing up at the right time. And in showing up at Foggy Bottom for President Obama’s second term, Kerry may have done precisely that.

The president’s need to delegate more of his global portfolio as he focuses on domestic issues, the sheer variety and magnitude of international problems to manage, and the fact that Kerry, unlike Clinton, has taken the job at the end of his political career, when he can afford to take greater risks — all these forces come together to give Kerry a chance to shine that Clinton never had.

Don’t misunderstand: Clinton was a fine secretary of state. She fought for her department and traveled the world in an effort to improve America’s image. But she had the misfortune of serving under the most controlling commander in chief — on foreign policy — since Richard Nixon. If she didn’t own the kind of consequential issues relating to conflict, war and diplomacy that make secretaries of state into historic figures, it is because she was not allowed to. Instead, Clinton made a virtue out of necessity, building an agenda that included gender equality, Internet freedom and the environment. All important issues, just not Acheson or Marshall territory.

On those matters relating to peace and war, the president, his White House advisers and the National Security Council dominated. The military, understandably, controlled Iraq and Afghanistan together with the president. When it came to thinking big on the U.S.-Israeli relationship, Iran, strategy on Russia and China, and the so-called Mideast peace process, it was the White House again. Even special envoys such as George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke were viewed as second-class citizens.

It was a tough spot for Clinton. Certainly, all presidents seek to dominate foreign policy. But great secretaries of state don’t just implement the White House’s policies, they play a critical role in shaping them. And presidents often empower their top diplomats, giving them leeway to run while watching their backs in Washington.

Nixon may have been jealous of Kissinger, but he knew he needed him, particularly during the Watergate years. And George H.W. Bush, because of his personal relationship with and high regard for Baker, let him shape U.S. policy on key issues relating to Iraq, Russia and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Clinton may have been a loyal team player, and the president respected her, but neither was very likely to forget that one ended up with the top job in Washington and the other didn’t. As the withholder in chief on foreign policy, the president never really depended on his secretary of state.

Obama’s first-term foreign policy was competent: no spectacular failures and, aside from the killing of Osama bin Laden, no spectacular successes, either. He focused on winding down America’s wars, was tough on terrorism and sought to work with others rather than embracing the lone-ranger diplomacy of his predecessor.

But governing is about choosing, and in a second term — with less time available and lame-duck status looming — the choices become harder for any president. Given the state of the world and the seeming absence of easy victories abroad, Obama has probably realized that his real legacy will be on the domestic side. Enter Kerry, whom the president needs to manage a dangerous world in a way that he didn’t need Clinton. Obama does not want to be remembered as the president who watched Iran obtain a nuclear weapon, presided over the end of the two-state solution and allowed Syria to go the way of Rwanda. He needs Kerry to resolve these challenges — or at least handle them.

Is Kerry up to the task?

“Men make their own history,” Marx wrote, “but they do not make it as they please.” No matter how talented and committed Kerry may be, unless the world offers real opportunities for effective U.S. diplomacy, he may be on the outside looking in at the Hall of Fame, along with Clinton. By attacking Israel in 1973, Anwar Sadat gave Kissinger a chance to broker three disengagement agreements among Israel, Egypt and Syria in 18 months; Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 gave Bush and Baker a chance to wage war and diplomacy effectively in the Middle East. America’s post-World War II dominance and the emerging Cold War with the Soviet Union gave Marshall and Acheson a chance to be bold and visionary.

Crises aren’t enough, of course. As secretary of state, you not only need a set of events offering a real opportunity for success, you also have to figure out how to deal with those exigencies when they’re in front of you. Even with presidential backing, the secretary of state must have a personal presence, the capacity to manipulate and anticipate, and a negotiator’s mind-set. The world is a jigsaw puzzle with pieces scattered everywhere. In the heat of a crisis, will Kerry be able to see how the pieces fit together — and actually assemble them?

All we know for now is that Kerry desperately wants to do it. “Global leadership is a strategic imperative for America, not a favor we do for other countries,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing. “It amplifies our voice, it extends our reach. It is the key to jobs, the fulcrum of our influence, and it matters.” His remarks might well have been a personal manifesto for a man who fashions himself as the embodiment of the activist, internationalist engager.

And he is engaged everywhere — dealing with North Korea, Turkey, China, Syria, even the broken Arab-Israeli peace process.

On Syria, for instance, he’s pushing for more nonlethal assistance to the rebels, working to increase humanitarian aid and moving to develop contingency plans with the Turks, the Israelis and the Jordanians in the event that the United States does intervene — all while trying to bring some order to a fractious Syrian opposition. And Kerry would likely be the point man on any diplomatic response to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he’s been to the region three times in as many months and is assembling a strategy, including working with the Arab states, developing a plan to meet Israeli security needs, thinking through an economic initiative for the Palestinians, and looking for a way to get Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back to the negotiating table and to keep them there. A June summit in Jordan is under consideration.

Kerry has also put himself in the middle of the mix in Asia, warning the North Koreans while trying to flatter the Chinese into calming down Pyongyang.

That kind of energy and intensity tells you something. Unlike Clinton, who may have her eyes on a greater political prize, Kerry has reached the zenith of his career: Vietnam veteran, U.S. senator, presidential nominee and now, the second-best job in the U.S. government. He seems hungry to demonstrate that he can use that job not just to advance U.S. interests but also to gain a place in history as one of America’s most consequential secretaries of state.

It’s largely a Kerry improv show right now. But with a little help from Obama, and a lot of luck in a volatile world, he just might get there.

aaron.miller@wilsoncenter.org

Read more from Outlook:

In Vietnam vets Hagel and Kerry, Obama finds champions of retrenchment

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