In Highest-Profile Role Yet, Kerry's Legacy Hangs On Syria

John Kerry spent years in the U.S. Senate, and many months running for president a decade ago. Neither role gave him as high a profile as he has now as Secretary of State, when every word he utters is scrutinized by an international audience.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. The week began with President Obama seeking congressional approval for military action. Now, it is ending with talks in Geneva aimed at a diplomatic solution. In this part of the program, the politics of the crisis in Syria. We'll talk to our regular weekly commentators and we'll start with a report on the man leading the U.S. diplomatic effort, Secretary of State John Kerry.

His legacy, as well as President Obama's, may be at stake as he seeks a solution to the latest dilemma in the Middle East. Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Speaking to reporters in Geneva today with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, Secretary of State Kerry made no mention of military force.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: President Obama is deeply committed to a negotiated solution with respect to Syria and we know that Russia is likewise.

WELNA: Just five days ago, at a London news conference, Kerry spelled out what Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could do to avoid being attacked by the U.S.

KERRY: He can turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it.

WELNA: Kerry added that Assad was not about to do that and that it could not be done. But within hours, both Russia and Syria embraced such a diplomatic resolution to the standoff. An uncertain vote in Congress on a military strike scheduled for Wednesday got called off and the nation's top diplomat won plaudits from Jon Stewart on "Daily Show."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

JON STEWART: It's John Kerry to the rescue. Secretary Kerry.

WELNA: Kerry's gotten less mocking praise from some of his former colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he chaired before taking over Hillary Clinton's last job. Dick Durbin is the Senate's number two Democrats and one of Kerry's long time allies.

SENATOR DICK DURBIN: He understands this may be his last and most important assignment, as secretary of state. He is determined in every way possible to tackle the big issues, whether it's peace between Israel and the Palestinians, whether it's dealing with this issue in Syria. He's as fully engaged physically as Hillary Clinton and I think he is doing his best to make sure the president's second term can point to some successes when it comes to foreign policy.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Now he wants to import cruise missiles, launching cruise missiles (unintelligible).

WELNA: Last week, as Kerry sat before the Foreign Relations panel to make a case for military action against Syria, he was harangued by an anti-war protester. His reaction was sympathetic.

KERRY: Well, you know, the first time I testified before this committee when I was 27 years old, I had feelings very similar to that protester.

WELNA: It was 1971 and Kerry, a Vietnam veteran awarded three purple hearts, had gone before the panel in Army fatigues to say that was must end.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

KERRY: Because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

WELNA: For Kerry, educated in Switzerland and the son of a diplomat, foreign policy would be paramount during his five terms in the Senate. Aaron David Miller is a Woodrow Wilson Center scholar and former Middle East negotiator. He says Kerry now seems determined to enter the secretary of state hall of fame.

AARON DAVID MILLER: And this supreme self confidence, I think. The upside is that he's risk ready. The downside is that the supreme self confidence can lead to a degree of comfort in the public arena, in public presentations, that results in a kind of imprecision of language.

WELNA: Such as on Monday, when Kerry described the scope of a possible U.S. military strike.

KERRY: That is exactly what we're talking about doing. Unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.

WELNA: Which prompted Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, who backs military action, to tweet that Kerry's remark was, quote, "unbelievably unhelpful." McCain had this to say about Kerry's performance.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: I would like to judge overall and give him time, but the handling of this crisis is the worst I've ever seen.

WELNA: The Wilson Center's Miller says Kerry had hoped his legacy would be resolving the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

MILLER: I'm afraid, right now, the legacy that threatens to define this administration's foreign policy and the president's performance, as well as the secretary of state's, performance is Syria.

WELNA: If so, it's not clear how that legacy will go down in history. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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