Is Kerry, only nine months on the job, already proving to be a better secretary of State than Hillary Clinton? To be fair to Clinton, she delegated Afghanistan and Pakistan to Holbrooke, one of America’s most able diplomats, and the Middle East to George Mitchell, the former U.S. senator. She also became secretary of State at a rawer time for America, when the key task of the new Obama administration was to restore some luster to a U.S. image badly tarnished by the ongoing Iraq war and the global financial crisis triggered by Wall Street. As a result, the administration was then focused on emphasizing the “soft” diplomacy of U.S. image-building, values-promotion and influence over “hard” or coercive diplomacy, in other words personal mediation in conflicts.
But neither did Clinton seem eager to step in when Holbrooke and Mitchell or other special envoys failed to make headway. It’s also clear that Kerry’s efforts are largely of his own making—especially in the Mideast, where the White House appears to have somewhat reluctantly let him try, marginalizing previous efforts to “pivot” its interests to Asia. And to a striking degree, Kerry’s efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinian together, to negotiate a truce in Syria at a “Geneva II” conference, and to find common ground with Iran on its nuclear program are all pieces of the same puzzle. Iran, for example, will continue to shore up Syria’s Assad and Hezbollah as long as it fears military threats from Israel and the United States over its nuclear program. If those threats abate, and some kind of nuclear agreement is signed, it might just be possible for Kerry to also induce Tehran to separate itself from the Assad regime, thereby making a truce in the civil war easier. A similar logic applies to Russia, which has also backed Assad and often seen itself as an adversary to U.S. interests in the region.