Analysis: Kerry ready to dirty hands in diplomatic deal-making

Editor’s Note: Elise Labott is CNN’s foreign affairs reporter. Since joining CNN in 2000, she has covered five secretaries of state and reported from more than 75 countries. Before joining CNN, she covered the United Nations. Follow her on Twitter at @eliselabottcnn.

Story highlights

John Kerry has coveted secretary of state position throughout long career

The job as top U.S. diplomat is Kerry's swan song -- he's not running for anything else

His "frankness" is effective, official says, but he can be out of sync with White House

"He landed running ... and we want to run with him," Israeli diplomat says

Washington CNN  — 

It was just after 1 a.m. in Istanbul when John Kerry emerged from the Friends of Syria meeting, flanked by Turkey’s foreign minister, Qatar’s prime minister and Moaz al-Khatib, leader of Syria’s political opposition.

The meeting between the Syrian opposition and foreign ministers from 11 of Syria’s main backers ran hours past the original deadline. The gathering was intended to get the opposition and international community on the same page about the pace and scope of aid, but it devolved into an extended argument about what one diplomat called “competing agendas” among the supporters.

Kerry took the reins in negotiating the communique, line by line, not letting anyone leave the room until it was finished. In the statement, the group agreed to channel all military assistance through the military council of the U.S.-backed Syrian National Coalition, a significant stab in curbing the escalating influence of al Qaeda-linked groups that have joined the effort to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Kerry also pushed the opposition to make strong and verifiable commitments to reject extremism and adhere to pluralism and human rights.

After taking questions from the press, Kerry went back into a meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and al-Khatib, returning to his hotel well past 3 a.m.

The agenda of such international meetings are usually arranged in advance by lower-level staff, producing watered-down statements that placate all the countries at the table. But aides say the Istanbul meeting was a textbook example of Kerry’s style.

“Things are not precooked or predetermined at the beginning of the day because he wants to see what he can get done in the meeting,” said State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki, who was also on Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. “There is a balance between patience and seizing the opportunity to move things forward.”

Like a kid in a candy store

Having coveted the secretary of state job for his whole career, Kerry is like a kid in a candy store. In the three months since taking office, Kerry has traveled just short of 70,000 miles and visited 20 countries in 37 days. He has breathed new life into the Middle East peace process, worked with President Barack Obama to broker a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey, traveled to press China for more support reining in North Korea and pushed for the first nonlethal direct aid to Syrian rebels, while helping to unite the fractious political opposition and working with Turkey, Jordan and Israel on contingencies should the United States get more involved in the crisis.

Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton, was a prolific traveler as well, having logged just short of 1 million miles as the nation’s top diplomat. Clinton’s engagement around the world was largely credited with improving the battered image of the United States after eight years of war under the Bush administration.

On name recognition alone, Kerry is not Clinton. He is well-respected around the world, but he can’t just show up.

And unlike Clinton, who was believed to have approached the job through the lens of a possible presidential run in 2016, Kerry has nothing to lose. He is not running for anything. It’s his swan song.

Clinton’s tenure was animated by “smart power” in which the United States worked to expand liberty and economic opportunity to make the world more peaceful and prosperous. Under Clinton, issues such as human rights, women’s rights, food security and Internet freedom were brought to the forefront of U.S. foreign policy for the first time.

For Kerry, it’s back to the basics. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for 29 years, four years as its chairman, Kerry has a long history with the issues and relationships with many of the world’s leaders. And as an unofficial envoy for the Obama administration, Kerry already had experience in diplomatic troubleshooting. Now he is eager to get his hands dirty with classic diplomatic deal-making.

Last month Kerry brought together Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani military chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in Brussels, Belgium, as tensions between the two neighbors reached new highs. The White House had feared the meeting could backfire, but Kerry convinced skeptical officials his longtime relationship with both men could help move the two countries closer to reconciliation with the Taliban.

In a photo-op before the meeting, Karzai and Kayani looked downright uncomfortable. But when they emerged afterward alongside Kerry, the atmosphere was far more upbeat. Kerry did not speak of breakthroughs, merely saying everyone had “homework” to do. But appearances suggested forward movement, and the meeting is believed to have opened some space for further talks.

‘A fearlessness about him’

“There is a fearlessness about him,” said David Wade, Kerry’s chief of staff at the State Department who worked with him in the Senate and was on his 2004 campaign. “He has an instinct that you don’t have a whole lot of time in life, and the job is to try and leave something behind.”

As North Korea’s war-mongering hit a fever pitch last year, Kerry traveled to Asia. Sensing a growing uneasiness in China about North Korea’s behavior, Kerry was both good and bad cop, pairing flowery praise about China’s importance and helpfulness with a not-so-subtle threat about a continued U.S. military presence in its backyard if it didn’t rein in the North.

It’s impossible to say how much Kerry’s backroom diplomacy had a part, but North Korea’s rhetoric is decidedly lower, and there is fresh evidence the regime has pulled its medium-range missiles from their launch pads.

Kerry’s diplomatic skills will be put to the test again this week in Russia, which the Obama administration and some Arab states see as one of the main obstacles to ending the crisis in Syria. Russia has moved little over the past two years of the conflict, but Kerry seems confident he can cajole President Vladimir Putin into supporting a political agreement between the regime and opposition.

“He has a very hands-on style,” Wade said. “He believes that some of these relationships need face-to-face tending”

As much as he enjoys the title of secretary of state, Kerry often seems to think he is still a senator responsible for no one but himself. He often speaks about his personal views on U.S. foreign policy that don’t comport with White House talking points.

More than once the State Department has sent journalists “clarifications” about what Kerry meant. Case in point: While in Brussels, Kerry said that Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev became radicalized after traveling to Russia. Given that the administration had not determined Tsarnaev’s motivation and was remaining tight-lipped about the case, Kerry’s comments caused a stir in Washington.

“There is an honesty and frankness to him that is a quality that makes him effective because people appreciate that in him, but it’s part of a natural adjustment,” one senior State Department official acknowledged.

Kerry has made no secret that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is his single most important foreign policy goal. In addition to three trips to the Middle East, where he shuttled between Israel and the Palestinian territories, he is on the phone constantly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and their aides to revive long-stalled talks. He is working with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a longtime international envoy on the peace process, on rallying corporate giants to invest in the Palestinian economy.

Most recently, Kerry hosted a delegation of Arab states to discuss the revival of the Arab Peace Initiative for a comprehensive peace treaty with Israel in exchange for the creation of a Palestinian state. At the end of the talks, the ministers agreed to sweeten a decade-old Arab League proposal by easing its demand that Israel return to its pre-1967 borders and accept the possibility of tweaking the borders with agreed-upon land swaps. In the absence of any progress on the peace process, he convinced the Arabs to take a huge leap of faith.

“In a short period of time, Secretary Kerry has been able to significantly affect the framework in which the parties are engaging and that is something,” said Robert Wexler, the former congressman from Florida who is now president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. Wexler noted that George Mitchell, the former U.S. envoy for Mideast peace, had tried to gain the same concessions with no success.

Mistrust in Mideast could trump Kerry’s acumen

Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs alike seem impressed with Kerry’s drive. The challenge, they all say, lies in the mistrust between the parties rather than Kerry’s diplomatic acumen.

“We are impressed with his enthusiasm and drive,” one Arab diplomat said. “He wants to take on the issues. The political environment isn’t encouraging, but if the president and Kerry want to try and bring the Israelis and Palestinians together, we are not going to be the problem.”

Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, said, “He landed running and is still running, and we want to run with him. He wants to move quickly; we want to move quickly. We are all intensely serious. The issue is whether we are going to be able to get the Palestinians back to the table.”

Kerry seems to have a far rosier view of the Middle East peace process than his boss, maybe because he is coming to it with fresh eyes. Having more than once tried and failed to restart peace talks, Obama has had years of a poisonous pill and is said to be skeptical about the prospects for a peace deal. The hope is that the White House will become more invested as Kerry shows some degree of progress.

Allies seem impressed with Kerry’s willingness to engage and ask their opinions. South Korean President Park Geun-hye teased Kerry during a meeting in Seoul in which he asked a lot of questions.

But some diplomats say while consultation is key, it remains to be seen if Kerry can deliver with the White House.

In Washington, there is a fear Kerry may be raising too many expectations, writing a bunch of checks he can’t cash on a host of issues. If he starts to freelance or strays too far from the White House script, Kerry may well find himself alone on an island. Even America’s top diplomat has a short leash.

“Even if the instinct is to do things on his own, he is smart enough to know that a secretary of state cannot afford to lose the confidence of the White House,” one senior White House official said. “The president decides what the policy is, and he has to respect those bounds.”

For now, Obama seems willing to let Kerry put himself out there. Officials said the White House appreciates Kerry’s enthusiasm and feels it could produce results if harnessed the right way.

But Obama bears some responsibility for doing that harnessing. More than one foreign policy expert has said Kerry has what it takes to become one of the great secretaries of state, along the lines of Henry Kissinger, James Baker and George Shultz. The one thing they all had in common is a president who trusted them, not just to implement foreign policy but to formulate it.

For a White House admittedly controlling over foreign policy, that will be no easy task.