Free Of Presidency, Secretary Kerry 'Willing To Take Risks'

Nov 24, 2013
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One of the key players in the deal with Iran is Secretary of State John Kerry. The former senator and presidential candidate is a familiar face in American foreign policy.

Journalist David Rohde has a profile of Kerry in the latest issue of The Atlantic. Rohde says one of the most defining aspects of Kerry's work now is that he's willing to take risks, especially in one of the most diplomatically difficult parts of the world: the Middle East. And that risk-taking has a lot to do with the fact that Kerry no longer has eye on higher office.

DAVID ROHDE: That's what's so unusual about Kerry. You know, Secretary Clinton worked extremely hard, but she was seen as being very cautious about hanging her legacy on the Middle East. Kerry has taken the opposite approach. He has embraced the Middle East. He's spent the vast majority of his time there, and he's really engaging in very, very risky diplomatic efforts that might fail. And speaking with him, he talked about how he's changed, he's learned from failures in life.

And then his aides told me that as he sort of let go of his dream of becoming president after his loss in 2004 to George W. Bush, Kerry is willing to take risks because he's no longer dreaming of becoming president. He's got something very rare in Washington, you know, where there's a lot of caution and calculation. He really has nothing to lose.

RATH: There's been that critique that's a bit haphazard, like the incident mentioning the possibility of an opening in the chemical weapons negotiations with Syria.

ROHDE: One of the defining traits of Kerry's tenure as secretary of State has been his gaffes. And the most famous one was in the build up to potential American airstrikes in Syria. Kerry, at this press conference in London, was asked hypothetically what could the Syrian government do that might allow them to avert these airstrikes. And Kerry, seeming on the fly, said, well, they could turn over all of their chemical weapons to the international community and agree to have them destroyed. And he told me later it was a purposeful comment that there were behind-the-scenes talks about this kind of proposal, but no one thought that the Russians or Syrians were really serious about acting on it.

After that offhand comment, the Russian officials and Syrian officials suddenly said they would accept that deal. And it created an opening for President Obama to not carry out what were becoming very unpopular airstrikes.

In other situations, his gaffes have created real problems. In one interview in Pakistan, he said the U.S. had a timeline for ending drone strikes. That's completely against the administration policy. And then he also praised the Egyptian army in that same interview in Pakistan. And then in a later visit to Egypt, he praised the army again, saying it was restoring democracy in Egypt. And you immediately had officials in Washington trying to walk back his statements.

RATH: You wrote about a moment that could have played out differently that was earlier this spring when Secretary Kerry was supposed to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But it did not go as planned. Can you talk about what happened?

ROHDE: It was Kerry's first visit to Moscow as secretary of State. I was one of the pool of reporters that were traveling with him. And we arrived at the Kremlin, and he was supposed to meet with President Putin. And it was very strange because Kerry didn't go in the Kremlin when we all expected he would. Instead, he starts walking around Red Square sort of pointing at different buildings and asking questions about Russian architecture. And we were all sort of confused about what was happening.

Kerry ended up going inside the Kremlin at that point and waiting and waiting. He eventually went back to his hotel. And what had happened was that Vladimir Putin kept John Kerry waiting for three hours for their face-to-face meeting. And in what his aides call classic Kerry, if there's some kind of diplomatic goal, John Kerry will do whatever it takes. And critics say this can lead to bad deals and is a dangerous thing.

But in that case, he had hours of meetings with the Russians. He praised Vladimir Putin at a late-night press conference for giving him such a warm welcome. And it didn't bother him at all.

RATH: Do you think Hillary Clinton would have put up with that?

ROHDE: Well, there's some people that said that other secretaries of state would have gotten on their plane and left. You know, and again, Kerry's a mixed bag. And I think there is a lot of arrogance and ambition there. But he said that there's a war going on in Syria. Thousands of people are dying. And if, you know, I end up sitting around and waiting for a few hours and it can somehow lead to a potential resolution of the war in Syria, I'm willing to do that.

RATH: That's David Rohde. His profile of John Kerry appears in the latest issue of The Atlantic magazine. He joined us from our New York bureau. David, thank you again.

ROHDE: Thank you.


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