Skip to main content

After year one, John Kerry's a surprise success

By David Rothkopf
February 5, 2014 -- Updated 2214 GMT (0614 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Rothkopf: Many doubted John Kerry would succeed against tough odds
  • But after a year as secretary of state, he's had surprising success, says Rothkopf
  • He says Kerry made progress on restoring diplomacy as central to U.S. role overseas
  • Rothkopf: Key for Kerry legacy is whether Iran, Syria, Israel-Palestinian talks bear fruit

Editor's note: David Rothkopf writes regularly for CNN.com. He is CEO and editor of the FP Group, publishers of Foreign Policy magazine, and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow him on Twitter at @djrothkopf.

(CNN) -- You could have gotten very good odds had you predicted at the beginning of 2013, when John Kerry took office as secretary of state, that he would end up having the most successful year of anyone in the Obama administration or, indeed, Washington.

Kerry was an old familiar face, a man whose moment had come and gone with his presidential candidacy in 2004. He was following in the footsteps of the most popular politician in America in an administration not famous for giving its Cabinet members much of the limelight that was jealously guarded for the President.

He also was going to be thrust into an international situation in which the problems ranged from intractable to almost incomprehensible at a time when the people of the United States had precious little interest in overseas engagement.

David Rothkopf
David Rothkopf

Yet here we are a year later and Kerry is widely regarded as having transcended himself, his job, the limitations placed on him by the White House, and the challenges of the world scene.

He is viewed as a man who has effectively built on the work Hilary Clinton did to restore diplomacy to the center of U.S. foreign policy and, in fact, as a greater risk taker than she was.

He has shown creativity, tenacity, the courage to stand up to leaders overseas and his would-be minders in the administration and has won widespread kudos for it.

One very senior Middle East diplomat on Tuesday described him to me as a "national treasure" for the United States. And this is someone who has many issues with the United States' handling of crises in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Kerry: Iran is not open for business
Kerry boycott comments draw ire
John Kerry a no for 2016

Another leader from the same region described the Kerry Israel-Palestine peace process as the "most remarkable effort I have seen in my lifetime." Within the State Department, while he is not given top grades as a manager of that big bureaucracy, he is seen as a force of nature, as someone who is willing the department into the central role that for the past decade was primarily occupied by the Pentagon in shaping U.S. international priorities.

Some of the change in the role of diplomacy is, of course, a result of shifting away from a war footing in Iraq and Afghanistan, withdrawing our troops and thus making military action less central to our initiatives in the Middle East. But that could just as easily have created a void.

Yet Kerry stepped in and from the beginning astonished everyone with his appetite to tackle the Israel-Palestine issue, his nimbleness in turning missteps in Syria into a chemical deal that would have been hard to imagine months earlier and his stewardship of the administration's Iran nuclear negotiations.

Some characterized him as a dreamer early on, a Don Quixote. But with the progress that has already been achieved on all three fronts, it is impossible not to see him as making a significant impact—largely by virtue of his tireless travel schedule, his mastery of the facts and his force of personality.

Of course, it is just a year that has transpired. While expectations for the Kerry tenure at State may have started low, he has raised them considerably.

Now all eyes are on these three deals to see what happens. Will there be an Iran deal? If so, will it be a good one that the Congress and our allies can accept or will it strengthen Iran without gaining real peace of mind for the United States and our allies in the region?

Will the Syria chemical deal, which the United States has complained is not resulting in the elimination of weapons fast enough, ultimately deliver on its original goals? Or will it continue to serve, as President Obama's own top intelligence official recently asserted, to strengthen the regime of Bashar al-Assad?

Opinion: Are Syria, Iran playing Obama for a fool?

And what benefit will a chemical weapons deal achieve if Syria continues to fester and serve as both a killing field and a training ground for an unprecedented number of extremists?

Can progress be made between Israel and the Palestinians? Even with the sniping that Kerry is receiving from top officials in the Israeli government? Even with the divisions among the Palestinians?

And what of the decay in Iraq? The possibility that the same will occur in Afghanistan when the United States leaves or that in leaving there, we will also become less capable of fighting terrorism in Pakistan? What of the shape-shifting and spread of al Qaeda and similar extremist groups? And what of the rest of the world that feels that the United States is once again focused almost exclusively on the Middle East even as large emerging markets are buffeted by crisis, Africa is rocked by wars, and our alliances are in desperate need of modernization?

No, while Kerry has had a remarkable year and has been an invaluable asset for the United States, he and his team know well that their toughest work lies ahead. His legacy and that of the President he serves will be determined less by the considerable progress of the past year and much more by whether the opportunities he has helped create can be capitalized upon in the time between now and the end of 2016.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Rothkopf.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT