State Department Photo by William Ng

Is John Kerry a Better Secretary of State Than Hillary Clinton?

In the last two months, Kerry has reopened mideast peace talks, negotiated a chemical weapons ban in Syria, found common ground with Russia and met in a historic sit-down with Iran's foreign minister. By Michael Hirsh

"The big Kerry arm." That's how some of his Senate staff used to describe John Kerry's approach to negotiation. It's reminiscent of what Lyndon Baines Johnson used to do to his Senate colleagues: a little light physical pressure to drive home a point. You can bet that at some point over the weekend the six-foot-four Kerry, who landed in Kabul on an unannounced visit Friday, applied that big arm to the shoulders of the diminutive Hamid Karzai, the often combative and erratic president of Afghanistan, whom Kerry knows well and with whom no one else in the U.S. government seems able to deal.

And not surprisingly, given his recent record, Kerry got some results, inducing Karzai to accept a provisional Bilateral Security Agreement, the long-delayed pact that, if the final issues are worked out and approved by Afghanistan's parliament and council of elders, could well help safeguard the enormous investment of blood and treasure that Obama has made in that country.

Call him the un-Hillary. Unlike his predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Kerry has always relished direct mediation in the world's trouble spots—and the more troubled, the better, aides say. Whereas Clinton, perhaps with an eye to the 2016 presidential race, appeared reluctant to personally take charge of especially hard issues ranging from Mideast peace to a Syrian truce, Kerry has jumped in eagerly. "Every single time a tough problem has fallen into John Kerry's lap, he's gone into it believing that it could be solved, and he of all people could solve it," says a senior administration official. Kerry, the failed 2004 Democratic nominee for president and the son of a career diplomat, is also said to be determined to leave behind his mark as a great secretary of State now that he no longer has political ambitions.

Thus, in the last two months alone Kerry has reopened talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, negotiated a chemical weapons ban in Syria—thus saving his boss, Barack Obama, humiliation over a threatened attack that Congress was about to vote down—found unusual common ground with the often recalcitrant Russians, and met in a historic sit-down with Iran's new foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif.

"It may look like he's playing all positions on the field," says Jonah Blank of Rand Corp., a former aide to Kerry on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "He's tried to engage in a lot of issues, and there are people who say he's spreading himself too thin. But many diplomatic breakthroughs come from simply being in the right place at the right time. Was it lucky that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin took him up on his offer to have [Syrian dictator Bashar] Assad give up all his chemical weapons? Luck-- and hard work."

In that instance, Kerry made a seemingly casual offer to Assad, saying the only way that the Syrian leader could avoid threatened U.S. airstrikes was to surrender his chemical weapons; within hours, Kerry's Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, took Kerry up on the idea and induced Assad to comply. In Afghanistan, Kerry had hoped to persuade the Afghan leader to sign a bilateral security agreement that will not commit the United States to defend Afghanistan against Pakistan, as Karzai was demanding, among other issues. As is often the case with difficult diplomacy, Kerry got some and gave some, getting a pledge from Karzai to grant the United States legal jurisdiction over the conduct of U.S. troops -- a provision that will require a loya jirga to approve it-- while reportedly giving Karzai some general guarantees on the defense question.

Obama had good reason to call on Kerry to drop in on Karzai, which the secretary of State did after filling in for the president at a multilateral summit in Asia because of the government shutdown. Back in 2009, when Kerry was still chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the administration also asked him to talk to Karzai after accusations of fraud in the Afghan elections. Kerry got Karzai to commit to a runoff. The late U.S special representative Richard Holbrooke, in an interview at the time, recalled that Kerry "worked Karzai very effectively, talking to him very personally from the gut. John talked about his own acceptance of the [disputed] outcome in Ohio in 2004, in order to get Karzai to understand there was nothing wrong with getting a second round."

If he succeeds in getting the bilateral security pact approved, Kerry could well save Obama's legacy yet again. Though the president has threatened to leave Afghanistan completely after the planned post-2014 withdrawal if Karzai doesn't accede to the U.S. position – just as he did Iraq-- Obama actually has far more at stake in Afghanistan. Iraq was always, to Obama, a "dumb" war; a conflict that never should have been fought. But after nearly six years of drift under George W. Bush, it was Obama who, in 2009, reclaimed ownership of Afghanistan, launching his own "surge," hiring and firing his commanding generals and ultimately assembling a nearly 350,000-strong Afghan fighting force.

Yet success still hangs in the balance. Over the weekend Kerry, combining smooth inducements to Karzai with his special brand of tough talk (orotund though it sometimes is), warned that "if the issue of jurisdiction cannot be resolved, then, unfortunately, there cannot be a bilateral security agreement." Without one, it is not hard to imagine Afghanistan falling into another civil war of the kind that originally gave birth to the Taliban—and to 9/11. A trip to Afghanistan by this reporter in mid-May revealed that senior U.S., NATO and Afghan officials believe they cannot succeed unless a military contingent of perhaps 5,000 to 10,000 troops remains, along with help in the air, and that can only occur under a bilateral security pact. Lt. Gen. Nick Carter, the deputy commander of the International Security Assistance Force under Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, said then that the U.S.-NATO plan to train, advise, and assist the Afghan forces will take at least until 2018 to complete. Those views were echoed by Army Chief of Staff Sher Mohammad Karimi, who said the Afghan military and police will need major assistance in logistics, air support, medical services "maybe for another 5-10 years." Other NATO nations are now waiting on Washington and Kabul to sign an accord before they commit their own forces. So a very great deal depends right now on John Kerry.

Is Kerry, only nine months on the job, already proving to be a better secretary of State than Hillary Clinton? To be fair to Clinton, she delegated Afghanistan and Pakistan to Holbrooke, one of America's most able diplomats, and the Middle East to George Mitchell, the former U.S. senator. She also became secretary of State at a rawer time for America, when the key task of the new Obama administration was to restore some luster to a U.S. image badly tarnished by the ongoing Iraq war and the global financial crisis triggered by Wall Street. As a result, the administration was then focused on emphasizing the "soft" diplomacy of U.S. image-building, values-promotion and influence over "hard" or coercive diplomacy, in other words personal mediation in conflicts.

But neither did Clinton seem eager to step in when Holbrooke and Mitchell or other special envoys failed to make headway. It's also clear that Kerry's efforts are largely of his own making—especially in the Mideast, where the White House appears to have somewhat reluctantly let him try, marginalizing previous efforts to "pivot" its interests to Asia. And to a striking degree, Kerry's efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinian together, to negotiate a truce in Syria at a "Geneva II" conference, and to find common ground with Iran on its nuclear program are all pieces of the same puzzle. Iran, for example, will continue to shore up Syria's Assad and Hezbollah as long as it fears military threats from Israel and the United States over its nuclear program. If those threats abate, and some kind of nuclear agreement is signed, it might just be possible for Kerry to also induce Tehran to separate itself from the Assad regime, thereby making a truce in the civil war easier. A similar logic applies to Russia, which has also backed Assad and often seen itself as an adversary to U.S. interests in the region.

Until now, one of the biggest sticking points over a Syria peace conference is whether Iran would attend, but the new opening between Washington and Tehran could help solve that issue. It is no small matter that Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif is the same Iranian diplomat who helped the U.S. to create the post-Taliban Afghan government at a conference in Bonn in late 2001. Like Kerry, Zarif is also a master at finding common ground.

In truth, the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace or an agreement with Iran that would halt the nuclear program that the Islamic Republic has dedicated itself to for decades look quixotic at best. What's also not very clear as yet is how much Kerry is making administration strategy, versus simply carrying it out energetically, as Clinton often did. To a striking degree, new National Security Advisor Susan Rice has taken charge inside the White House, officials say, and Obama himself remains his own No. 1 strategist. But if there are deals to be made and Kerry's the one in the camera shot, he'll get a lot of the credit. And he may yet leave a considerable mark as America's top diplomat.