Negotiating the Whirlwind: Can Secretary of State John Kerry break through in Syria?


John Kerry, the sixty-eighth Secretary of State of the United States, was born to a temperament of wintry rectitude. He is descended from the Winthrops, who helped found the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the Forbeses, a Brahmin clan that made its money in railways and in exporting tea, silver, and opium to China. His father was a diplomat. Kerry attended St. Paul’s and Yale (where he was in Skull and Bones) and, as a naval officer in Vietnam, earned three Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star, and the Silver Star. He dated Jacqueline Kennedy’s half-sister, sailed with J.F.K., and married twice into substantial fortunes. Despite the codes of his class, however, Kerry was never entirely subtle about his ambitions. When he was in prep school, his classmates used to play “Hail to the Chief” to him on the kazoo.

In 2004, when Kerry lost the Presidential race to George W. Bush, who is widely considered the worst President of the modern era, he refused to challenge the results, despite his suspicion that in certain states, particularly Ohio, where the Electoral College count hinged, proxies for Bush had rigged many voting machines. But he could not suffer the defeat in complete silence. He was outraged that Bush, who had won a stateside berth in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War, used campaign surrogates, the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, to slime his military record. He was furious, too, at Robert Shrum, his chief strategist, and other campaign advisers who had restrained him from hitting back.

“For a long period, after 2004, every time he even half fell asleep all he saw was voting machines in the state of Ohio,” Mike Barnicle, a close friend of Kerry’s and a former columnist for the Boston Globe, told me. This summer, Barnicle spent time with Kerry on Nantucket, where Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz, have a house on the water and a seventy-six-foot, seven-million-dollar sailboat called Isabel. “We were sitting in the bow,” Barnicle recalled, “and we were talking about a bunch of different things—about Iran, about what the President of Iran was like—and I said, ‘Other than not being President, this is pretty good.’ There was a security boat sailing off to the side of us. Then he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I realize how badly Shrum screwed me.’ ”

A few weeks ago, between Kerry’s trips to Europe and the Middle East, I had dinner with Kerry and Heinz at their house in Georgetown, a twenty-three-room mansion decorated with Early American portraits, Dutch still-lifes, and an amiable yellow Labrador retriever named Ben. (The Lab has the Twitter handle @DiploMutt.) I asked Kerry how long he carried around a sense of anger and resentment.

“I didn’t carry it,” he insisted. “I didn’t. I didn’t. My wife was mad at me that I didn’t carry it longer.”

From across the table, Teresa Heinz said, “I’m still carrying it.”

The Secretary of State looked up from his halibut. An ill wind of panic swept the oblong plain of his face. From the thick thatch of gray hair to the improbably long and thrusting chin, Kerry’s visage is immense and, in its implacable resting expression, resembles one of the monolithic heads that rise from the loam of Easter Island.

“Well, I’m not,” Kerry said.

His gaze turned to his wife, wordlessly imploring her to keep quiet. Heinz is seventy-seven, five years older than her husband, and, in 2013, she suffered a seizure that she has attributed to an earlier concussion “that was not properly treated at all.” It’s not easy for her to get around, and she appears infrequently at public events, but she spoke clearly and ardently throughout the evening, much as she had during the 2004 campaign.

She was not quite done. “I knew from looking at the . . .”

Kerry uses many terms of endearment for his wife; now he called her by the telegraphic “T.”

“T, let’s not go . . .” he said gently.

As she tried to speak again, he shut it down.

“T, T, we’re not . . . I didn’t want to spend time there,” he said. “I just consciously did not spend time there, and I moved on, and I moved on as rapidly as . . . It’s over. It’s behind me. . . . I could have done some things a little bit differently. We didn’t. But I’m not going to feel regret the rest of my life.”

In early 2013, after twenty-eight years in the Senate, Kerry succeeded Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. He is seventy-two, and this is almost surely his last high-ranking job as a public official. As he put it to me, “I have fourteen months left on the clock.” He has already made his historical mark by acting as the Obama Administration’s chief negotiator in the nuclear talks with Iran. That deal, which is designed to prevent Iran from building an atomic weapon and sparking a nuclear arms race throughout the Middle East, was signed two months ago. But it was never a foregone conclusion. This time last year, the White House was running “Plan B” meetings about what steps to take—deeper sanctions, potential military strikes—if the talks failed.

His admirers and his critics in the diplomatic world describe Kerry in similar terms: tirelessly optimistic, dogged, rhetorically undisciplined, undaunted by risk, convinced that if he can just get “the relevant parties” into “the room” he can make a deal. “John Kerry picks his battles, and he invests body and soul in tackling conflicts where the human consequences are very high,” Samantha Power, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, told me. “When he engages, he is all in.”

Kerry has shown repeatedly that he will use any lever as a means of diplomatic persuasion—including his defeat in 2004.

In July, 2014, Afghanistan faced a potential civil war as the candidates to succeed Hamid Karzai as President—Abdullah Abdullah, a physician and the former foreign minister, and Ashraf Ghani, the former chancellor of Kabul University—charged each other with trying to steal the election. A few years earlier, Kerry, serving as Obama’s emissary while still in the Senate, had talked Karzai down from reckless decisions by recalling his own political upheavals; now he needed to do something similar.

On July 12th, Abdullah met with Kerry, in Kabul, at the American Ambassador’s residence. Abdullah’s supporters in the Northern Alliance and among various warlords—Ghani had his own warlord constituency—did not want him to back down. It was left to Kerry to argue that, despite what was delicately described as “electoral improprieties,” confrontation had to be avoided.

“I ran for President and I lost and now I’m Secretary of State of the most powerful country in the world,” Kerry told Abdullah and his entourage, according to an aide’s contemporaneous notes. “I know your anger. I know your frustration.” He pressed Abdullah not to walk away from politics, lest the country tumble into chaos and “the next generation” lose its chance.

The United Nations carried out an audit of the election and determined that although there had been fraud on both sides, Ghani had won. Abdullah was still not prepared to yield. On September 17th, Kerry called Abdullah from his office at the State Department to persuade him to concede and accept the face-saving position of “chief executive officer” in Ghani’s government.

He asked Abdullah to put his phone on speaker so that his aides could hear. After flattering Abdullah for his strength and importance in the country, Kerry said, “I will share with you a very personal experience: When I ran for President of the United States, in 2004, against George Bush, in the end, on Election Day, we had problems in the state of Ohio on how the votes were taking place. I even went to court in America to keep polling places open to make sure my people could vote. I knew that even in my country, the United States, where we had hundreds of years of practicing democracy, we still had problems carrying out that election. The next afternoon, I had a meeting with my people, and I told them that I did not think it appropriate of me to take the country through three or four months of not knowing who the President was. So that afternoon in Boston I conceded to the President and talked about the need to bring the country together. . . . One of the main lessons from this is there is a future. There is a tomorrow.”

Several days later, Abdullah Abdullah conceded and joined the Afghan government.


Kerry and Heinz have no shortage of residences; in addition to the houses in Georgetown and on Nantucket, they live in an eighteenth-century five-story pile on Louisburg Square, in Beacon Hill; in a family compound on Naushon, a private island off Cape Cod; in a fifteenth-century English farmhouse that was reassembled on the bank of Big Wood River, in Sun Valley; and on a ninety-acre farm called Rosemont, outside Pittsburgh, where Heinz spent time with her first husband, H. John Heinz III, the Republican senator and condiments scion, who died in 1991. When Kerry ran for President, her fortune was estimated at around a billion dollars. Kerry and Heinz keep their financial assets separate, but, had Kerry won in 2004, they would, together, have been the wealthiest family ever to occupy the White House.

As Secretary of State, however, Kerry spends much of his life onboard a worse-for-wear government jet, a Boeing 757. Both Kerry and Clinton have often had the humbling experience of the plane breaking down: a blown tire, a leak in an auxiliary fuel tank, “electronic problems.”

Kerry is six-four and walks with a pained roll in his gait. He has had both hips replaced—his ice-hockey days at Yale took a toll—and he is still recovering from an accident last May, in which he steered his racing bike into a curb, crashed to the road, and shattered his right femur. He travels in a cabin in the front of the plane, where a couch unfolds into a bed, allowing him to stretch out to read briefing papers and to make calls on a secure telephone line to foreign leaders and to the White House. He doesn’t sleep much, but sometimes he brings along a nylon-string guitar and relaxes by playing Beatles songs, Spanish laments, and show tunes. (Argentina will be delighted to hear that “Evita” is a favorite.) When he’s on one of his diplomatic “death marches” through some rarely visited region—recently, it was five Central Asian nations in two days—he likes to bone up with a “crash course.”

“I usually Google a country, find an interesting article or two, read about it, get some history,” he told me. “I want to know where I am. I want to know what made this place like it is. What is it about Samarkand that’s special?”

In late October, I joined him on one of the death marches, a Thursday-to-Sunday trip from Andrews Air Force Base, outside D.C., to Berlin, Vienna, Amman, and Riyadh. His job is to give strategic advice, help execute White House policy, tamp down crises, and reach agreements; to stroke allies, send clear signals to powers considered more problematic, like Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and China; and to forge potential relationships with old enemies like Iran.

The Obama Administration, working in the political safe haven of a second term, has won two recent, if divisive, victories: the deal with Iran and the opening to Cuba. It also has a “bucket list”: reaching a ceasefire and political settlement in Syria; stepping up an internationally coördinated fight against ISIS; and advancing the fight against climate change. This trip was designed mainly to get wildly disparate parties from the West, Russia, and the Middle East to begin negotiations on Syria. In particular, the trick was to get Iran “in the room” without losing its sworn enemies, the Sunni nations of the Gulf.

Kerry’s persistence and self-assurance, coupled with excruciating economic sanctions, is what helped him succeed with the Iranians. It’s also what led to nine months of fruitless, chaotic, and, arguably, corrosive negotiations that broke down last year between the Israelis and the Palestinians—negotiations that almost no one, not even the President, believed would lead to a breakthrough. Kerry argued that the hellbound trajectory of events was heading toward calamity, and he had to try; his critics said that the conditions were not ripe, and that the effort amounted to a diplomatic vanity project. Kerry’s Middle East adventure was precisely the kind of initiative that Hillary Clinton, who was intent on running for President, and who is, by nature, more risk averse, was disinclined to take up as Secretary of State.

The President has admired Kerry’s energy and sense of commitment since they worked together on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, although, a number of sources told me, he occasionally ribs Kerry for his more headlong efforts. And yet the two have markedly different temperaments and views of what the United States should attempt to achieve, particularly in the Middle East. Obama sees the region in the throes of historical turmoil—Sunni versus Shia, civil war in Syria, threats to national boundaries drawn by France and Great Britain a century ago, threats to the stability of Lebanon, Jordan, even Saudi Arabia. Having seen one intervention after another fail, he is determined to act with restraint. “Kerry, on the other hand, sees no historical trends that can defeat us,” Philip Gordon, a veteran National Security Council official and Obama’s principal adviser on the Middle East from 2013 to the spring of 2015, told me. “His optimism is such that he thinks, We will confront this! We will deal with it! There’s got to be a solution. We just need to find it and lead people there.” Gordon does not say this with admiration.

We landed at a military airport in Berlin. Kerry got into an Embassy car and headed to a meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who happened to be in Germany to see Chancellor Angela Merkel. In recent weeks, there had been an alarming uptick in street violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank—stabbings, shootings, rock throwing, face-offs with troops—and at least some of it was due to rumors that the Israelis wanted to exert more control over the Temple Mount, in the Old City, or what Arabs call the Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary. Some Israelis on the religious right want to build a Third Temple there; some Arabs claim, wrongly, that the site, now dominated by the Al Aqsa Mosque, never had any Jewish historical importance.

Kerry met with Netanyahu with the modest goal of dialling back the rhetoric about the Temple Mount on both sides, getting the Israelis to make it clear that the complex status quo was not going to change. But Netanyahu had just infuriated him by giving a speech suggesting that the grand mufti of Jerusalem in the thirties was the ideological inspiration for the Final Solution. “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time,” Netanyahu told the World Zionist Congress, in late October. “He wanted to expel the Jews.” Netanyahu said the mufti didn’t want German Jews to come to Palestine, so, instead, he advised Hitler to “burn them.” The mufti was, in fact, anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi, but the notion that he was the ideologist of the Holocaust was preposterous.

Keep reading on the New Yorker website


Leave a Reply

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Discover more from Middle East Transparent

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading