Washington (AFP) – In rolling the dice on Iran, Syria and Middle East peace, President Barack Obama has made Secretary of State John Kerry the chief executor of his foreign policy legacy — a role denied to Hillary Clinton.
Intriguing comparisons between Obama’s first and second term top diplomats broadened Thursday, when Kerry took charge of nuclear talks with Iran.
He already had a heavy load, marshaling peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians and thrashing out a deal with Russia on Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
Should his long odds bets pay off, Kerry, 69, could be remembered as one of the great modern secretaries of state. If not, he may go down as one who aimed high but failed to deliver.
Kerry’s high profile raises questions on whether Obama is loosening his control of national security policy, and will also inevitably draw comparisons with the record of his predecessor which will be grist for 2016, if Clinton takes another tilt at the White House.
Clinton, a global figure, waved the U.S. flag in more than 100 countries while Obama fought economic blight at home, but she lacks an achievement of the magnitude of those Kerry is currently eyeing.
Circumstance and fate may be partly to blame: Clinton helped frame tough sanctions against Iran, but was not around when they cracked open a window for diplomacy.
Clinton also helped broker the first Geneva peace accord on Syria, but her plans to arm rebels were rebuffed by Obama.
And while trust grew between former rivals Clinton and Obama, she was never quite the top implementer of administration foreign policy, despite being seen as a “rockstar” diplomat. Kerry, a creature of the courtly Senate, is more old school.
State Department officials this week painted images of Kerry and Kremlin Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, pencils out, jackets off, haggling over a draft resolution on Syria at the UN — under the gaze of a giant painting of Vladimir Putin.
Kerry’s on-the-fly style contrasts with the disciplined shop run by Clinton’s crew, some of whom were there solely to guard her future political viability.
And though Clinton was lauded abroad, she tended to steer clear of the hefty dossiers Kerry has embraced — preferring to project her trademark “soft power.”
One former official said that in some ways, Clinton paved the way for Kerry by piling up air miles in “relationship repair” needed after the tumultuous George W. Bush years.
Asia v Middle East
Clinton made emerging powers in Asia, not ancient Middle East conflicts, her priority, despite the turmoil of the Arab Spring unfolding on her watch.
Kerry by contrast, puzzled even some senior White House aides by sensing opportunity despite glum conditions for the perennial U.S. quest for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
But Kerry’s team denies he is more interested in what he calls “frozen” conflicts than Obama’s “rebalancing” of U.S. power toward the Pacific.
The natural rhythms of the U.S. presidency may explain the differing tenures of Clinton and Kerry.
Second term presidents, constrained at home, often polish legacies abroad — offering opportunities for subordinates: Madeleine Albright for example traveled to North Korea.
Heather Hurlburt, who worked for Albright, and is now with the National Security Network, said first term White House’s tend to keep a tighter rein on national security policy.
“They do not want to let anybody get too far from the tree,” she said.
Colin Powell could sympathize — as George W. Bush’s first term top diplomat he was dominated by an all-powerful White House, most notably on the case for war in Iraq.
Obama: ready to outsource?
Chastened by experience, Obama may have learned the wisdom of outsourcing presidential power: his first term Middle East peacemaking fizzled badly.
While Kerry is the public face of U.S. policy on Syria, Iran and the Middle East, much of Clinton’s most significant work was more low key.
She was a heavyweight on the National Security Council which surged troops to Afghanistan, bombed Libya and plotted the killing of Osama bin Laden.
She challenged China at regional summits — a move crucial to Obama’s Asia policy little noticed at home.
But Obama’s praise as “one of our finest secretaries of state,” Clinton never quite bestrode the stage as Kerry does now.
Politics was partly to blame: early on, Clinton healed wounds of her bitter primary fight with Obama by taking a subordinate role as he grew as commander-in-chief.
Some Obama first term foreign policy priorities were an extension of his own political persona — including the vow to end the war in Iraq on which he built his campaign.
Clinton played a role in a now busted “reset” with Russia. But at the root of the push was Obama’s signature policy of cutting nuclear weapons — which earned him a Nobel peace prize.
While Kerry may be the face of more policy than Clinton, it is unclear if he has any more power.
Obama did not consult Kerry — the cheerleader for U.S. military action in Syria — when he made his lonely decision to ask Congress to back the use of force.
And it was the White House, not the State Department, which pounced on Russia’s plan to dispose of Syria’s chemical arms.
“At the end of the day, it’s the president who is going to be making the big calls,” said a former senior administration official.