Updated: September 3, 2013 7:38AM
Hillary Clinton has been basking in golden political glow and admiration lately. President Obama hosted her at a much-publicized White House lunch. She is soon to be the subject of a TV miniseries, a movie and a CNN documentary — I think it’s safe to say all are likely to be sympathetic. And her many fans are all but begging her to run for president in 2016. Then, along came John Kerry.
Kerry is threatening to upstage Clinton’s resume at the State Department by showing what a determined public figure can do with a job like secretary of state. The new chief at Foggy Bottom immediately took on one of the globe’s toughest diplomatic challenges — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — while Clinton’s term as secretary of state was mostly noted by four years of pomp and circumstance with the final chapter of Benghazi a lingering stain.
On Clinton’s watch, the much-hyped reset with Russia imploded, the “Arab spring” exploded in chaos and bloodshed across the Middle East with America playing mostly the role of hapless bystander, Iran continued to march toward nuclear weapons, and China threw its weight around in the South China Sea, staking claims to disputed islands and asserting sovereignty over waters vital to global shipping.
Clinton did rack up more miles aboard the State Department’s jetliner than any previous secretary of state. But all that toing-and-froing produced little in the way of concrete high-level achievements of her own initiative. As George Packer of the New Yorker observed, Obama “kept policy-making inside the White House” while Clinton “and her department were never trusted with policy blueprints.”
Regarding Benghazi, the White House claims there is no scandal in the deaths of four Americans there or the administration’s handling of the crisis or explanations about what happened and why. But there is the fact that for the first time in three decades a U.S. ambassador was murdered — after warnings about the dire security situation in Libya — and it occurred on Clinton’s watch. Clinton likely hasn’t heard the last about Benghazi.
It may be that after the crushing defeat of her 2008 presidential bid, Clinton saw the State Department as a way to end her political career with dignity and acquiesced to a mostly ceremonial role. That continued when she realized that her rising poll numbers indicated she could use State as a springboard to another presidential run.
Kerry has no ambition for higher office. State is his final chance to close out his career in a big way. Kerry immediately embarked on a high-stakes gamble with the Israeli-Palestinian situation, traveling to the region six times to press his personal relationship with leaders there to drag the two sides back to the bargaining table. He even got the Arab League to sign on to his project.
And he did it without White House encouragement. According to an Associated Press dispatch a month ago, Kerry was “largely fighting the battle alone . . . with the White House appearing reluctant to stake political capital in an endeavor that so often has proved a disappointment.” Kerry has set his sights high — a final status agreement in nine months. The list of reasons against that happening stretches from here to, well, the Middle East.
Even if his grand ambition comes up short, Kerry will have shown how a bold leader with a goal and purpose can grasp the opportunity history affords and be a player on the world stage — in sharp contrast to the play-it-safe ceremonial role-playing that was good enough for Clinton.