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John Kerry's risk-taking could hurt Hillary's chances in 2016

Nobody thinks Hillary did a bad job as secretary of state, but compared to Kerry's risk-taking, it’s a struggle to identify any noteworthy accomplishments.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry testifies at a Senate hearing in Washington on March 13, 2014. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry testifies at a Senate hearing in Washington on March 13, 2014.

The New York Times reported April 16 that Hillary Clinton, front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 (if she wants it), “seemed flustered” when asked recently what her proudest moment was as secretary of state. The Times’s Mark Lander and Amy Chozick said Clinton’s problem was that “much of what she labored over so conscientiously is either unfinished business or has gone awry in [Obama's] second term.” Really, though, her problem is a guy named John Kerry.

Nobody thinks Hillary Clinton did a bad job as secretary of state, but it’s a struggle to identify any noteworthy accomplishments. That Clinton herself could only come up with a relay race metaphor (“you run the best race you can run, you hand off the baton”) -- itself borrowed from an interview President Obama gave the New Yorker in January (“you are essentially a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids”) -- does not inspire one to read Hard Choices, the lugubriously-titled memoir she will publish in June. Clinton’s fumble probably helped prompt all the condescending nonsense directed at her, from friend and foe alike, after it was revealed she was about to become a grandmother. Her allies wanted to change the subject; her enemies wanted to move in for the kill.

Lander and Chozick suggested Clinton’s proudest moment at State should have been the sanctions that prompted Iran to stop expanding its nuclear program and brought it to the bargaining table. But an interim agreement wasn’t reached until November -- nine months after Clinton left office. Is Clinton being circumspect out of deference to Kerry, her successor? More likely, she’s playing it safe in case the negotiations fall apart, as may well occur. In a speech last month Clinton said “the odds of reaching [a] comprehensive agreement are not good,” and declared herself “personally skeptical that the Iranians would follow through and deliver.”

“Playing it safe” does not describe Clinton’s successor, John Kerry. Less than six months into his tenure, Kerry started peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The talks blew up earlier this month, but Kerry is scrambling to revive them. Kerry also brokered a deal with Russia to compel Syria to rid itself of chemical weapons. Although clearly inadequate to the situation (Kerry is now also advocating military action against the Assad regime, according to the Wall Street Journal), more than half of Syria’s known store of chemical weapons has been removed.

All these efforts earned Kerry a furious tongue-lashing earlier this month from Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain. “I think you’re about to hit the trifecta,” McCain told his former Senate colleague, citing obstacles on Iran, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and Syria. “Sure, we may fail,” Kerry replied. “And you want to dump it on me? I may fail. I don’t care. It’s worth doing.” At both ends of this conversation were people who won their party’s nomination for president, got beat in the general, and now have little to lose. Hillary Clinton is not a member of this club, and “I don’t care” are not words one can easily imagine her saying about any failure, large or small.

In the end, Kerry may not have much to show for his energetic risk-taking. But there’s a growing consensus that it represents a refreshing change, not just from Clinton but from all her predecessors since the Berlin Wall fell. Writing in The Atlantic last December, David Rohde asked, “Haven’t we reached the point where assertive, risk-taking diplomacy is called for?” Earlier this month, Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg wrote, as the Mideast talks were imploding, “God bless John Kerry for trying.” And just this past Sunday, David Ignatius of The Washington Post suggested,

"If you compare Secretary Clinton, who I think was a solid Secretary of State, with her successor, John Kerry, you see what a dynamic Secretary of State who didn't just make “hard choices,” went out there day after day after day trying to make diplomatic agreements, [looks like] … And that comparison I think won't work in Secretary Clinton's favor. She can say, "I was a solid secretary," but compared to what Kerry's attempted she just wasn't really at that level."

If Ignatius is right (and I think he is), Clinton has two options. She can hope for Kerry to fail, which isn’t really in her character. Or she can de-emphasize her experience as Secretary of State and focus less on what she’s done than on what she’d like to do. After a dozen years in the Senate and as a top cabinet officer, Hillary Clinton is past having to reassure anyone that she possesses sufficient experience to be president. (That was not the case in 2008.) Should she run for president in 2016, she should focus instead on telling Americans what type of experience they can expect to have if she occupies the Oval Office.