John Kerry's Ambitious First Year The secretary of state set big goals this year, from restarting the Mideast peace process to ending the civil war in Syria and curbing Iran's nuclear program. NPR's Jennifer Ludden talks with David Ignatius of The Washington Post about how much progress Kerry has made this year.
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John Kerry's Ambitious First Year

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John Kerry's Ambitious First Year


Secretary of State John Kerry helped broker the deal to remove chemical weapons from Syria. He's been in his State Department post since February, and in that time has had a full portfolio - Syria, Iran, another attempt at Mideast peace talks. To better gauge how John Kerry's performed during his first year on the job, we called David Ignatius. He is a columnist for the Washington Post. Thanks so much for joining us.

DAVID IGNATIUS: Oh, happy to be with you.

LUDDEN: Hillary Clinton was a popular secretary of state. The thinking was John Kerry had big shoes to fill. What's the thinking now?

IGNATIUS: Well, if Hillary Clinton was a wonderful representational secretary of state, I think of John Kerry as more a transactional secretary of state. From the beginning, he has been interested in trying to make deals, usually in secret, usually saying as little about what he's doing as he can get away with. When you look back at Hillary Clinton, you see a sparkling record but very few of those deals.

LUDDEN: Kerry has also stepped into nail down an interim agreement with Iran to curb its nuclear program. How much of a role has he had in this reengagement with Iran?

IGNATIUS: The Iran negotiation - and I say this having just been in Iran a week ago - is really a remarkable piece of diplomacy. We now know that the initial steps were actually laid by Secretary of State Clinton at President Obama's direction last year. Kerry continued that. Kerry, interestingly, intervened at key moments with his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, the foreign minister of Iran, who I interviewed when I was in Iran. And Zarif made the point when there was trouble in the negotiations, when the Iranians had had worries about what they thought were changes in the script of the interim agreement, Kerry stepped in. So, Kerry has been the intervener at key moments to keep this negotiation going.

LUDDEN: Now, as if this wasn't all enough, he has been working to jump-start peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. Certainly a feat in itself, but has there been any real movement there?

IGNATIUS: Well, the thing about the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is this has been a rare example of keeping quiet diplomacy genuinely quiet. What we know is, is that Secretary Kerry got the two parties back into discussions. The peace process had totally broken down. And he got them to agree to initial confidence-building measures. But this is really diplomacy's mission impossible. Every administration wants to tackle it, tries to, and in his first months, Kerry was, I would say, almost ridiculed for thinking that he could take this up and make some progress. He stuck with it. He ignored the critics. And we'll see next year what he has produced. There really is a deadline for this process - runs out in the spring, kind of March, April, that timeframe. And if Kerry hasn't produced something by then, I think the process is going to fall apart.

LUDDEN: Well, after pretty much not much at all happening, the entire first Obama administration, it almost feels like Kerry is more invested in this than perhaps the White House is.

IGNATIUS: I think President Obama felt burned by his efforts to involve himself in the Middle East, felt that in the end he'd gotten nothing for his trouble except political unpopularity at home. But he'd chosen John Kerry as secretary of state who really was dying to have his chance to make his mark. And Kerry took on all the things that President Obama seemed himself to be sick of, at a time when President Obama wants to work more on domestic issues, has to worry about health care. John Kerry's been there to be an overdrive as a secretary of state doing negotiating work that the president normally might do but in this case has been left to the secretary.

LUDDEN: David Ignatius is a columnist for the Washington Post. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

IGNATIUS: Thanks very much.


LUDDEN: You're listening to NPR News.

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