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Kerry Doesn’t Set American Foreign Policy

When rumors first started after the 2008 election that President Obama was going to nominate Hillary Clinton to serve as secretary of state, there were concerns in some corners that she would be trouble for the president. She had her own “Washington power base” and was thought to have retained her desire to one day be president and would want to shape her legacy at State accordingly. That turned out not to be the case, as Clinton was a loyal soldier.

And that wasn’t because she agreed with Obama on the administration’s major foreign policy strategies. Though we didn’t quite know it at the time, Clinton actually disagreed with Obama on fairly significant issues. When Clinton left the State Department, we learned that she had pushed for a plan to arm the Syrian rebels last year and increase American intervention in that country’s bloody civil. She was rebuffed by the president. After the November election, she also made a speech that was far more critical of Russia than her boss ever was, and in fact expressed the kind of hostility that Obama was mocking Republicans for:

“There is a move to re-Sovietize the region,” Clinton lamented.

“It’s not going to be called that. It’s going to be called customs union, it will be called Eurasian Union and all of that,” she said, referring to Russian-led efforts for greater regional integration. “But let’s make no mistake about it. We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.”

The criticism coupled with the threat to derail the customs union was a marked departure from the previous four years of U.S.-Russia diplomacy. The point is that the foreign policy espoused by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton differed, sometimes dramatically, from her ideal foreign policy. We got the former instead of the latter because secretaries of state are not policymakers. They are unelected (though Senate-confirmed) representatives of the policy standpoints of the elected president. It’s a lesson of which John Kerry and his backers at the New York Times need reminding, if this past weekend’s puff piece on Kerry’s new role at Foggy Bottom is any clue.

As I wrote recently, Kerry’s visit to Moscow last month to nudge Vladimir Putin on Syria was a belly flop. Putin kept him waiting, all but ignored him when they met, and then continued crossing Washington’s wishes in the Middle East. But the New York Times has a slightly different recollection than everyone else who reported on the meeting. It’s not that they dispute what happened; they’re just able to put a heroic gloss on it:

Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Moscow early last month, determined to involve Russia in a new push to try to end the carnage in Syria. After a two-and-a-half-hour meeting with the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, and a private stroll with Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, the two sides announced they would convene a conference in Geneva to bring representatives of the Syrian government together with the opposition, possibly by the end of May.

The idea of a conference was a bold move — and so far, at least, an unsuccessful one.

This is diplomacy, Kerry-style. Call for a conference whose futility is painfully obvious and return home to the paper of record’s ticker tape parade. A bold move, thunders the Times. In the next paragraph we are told that although the “bold move” was a bust, Kerry was “undaunted.” That’s because of Kerry’s desire to differentiate himself from Clinton–whom the Times refers to here as a mere “global celebrity”–and “carve out a legacy as one of the most influential secretaries of state in recent years by taking on some of the world’s most intractable problems.”

But of course Kerry is in no position to decide for himself where he’d like to take American foreign policy, because of what the Times calls “the centralization of foreign policy decision-making in a White House that has famously maintained a tight grip on foreign policy — so much so that before taking the job, Mr. Kerry received an assurance that he would be consulted before major foreign policy decisions were made.”

No one should begrudge Kerry–or any secretary of state–the desire to leave a lasting legacy, especially since he has spent so much time in Washington and would presumably like to be remembered for something other than losing a presidential election. But policy is made in the White House. If Obama wants Kerry to undertake a 2013 version of shuttle diplomacy to engineer peace in the Middle East then that’s what Kerry will do. And even in such a case, Kerry would still be constrained by the parameters of what the White House is willing to offer and what they are not.

Kerry’s record on foreign affairs suggests we should keep our expectations of him modest. But no matter his abilities or ambitions, he, like every chief U.S. diplomat, answers to the president.