Confidence Man

John Kerry has the skill, toughness, and ego to be a great secretary of state. But will the world let him?

I've met John Kerry only once. Earlier this year, I was invited to a dinner at the State Department with the secretary and a few others to talk about U.S. options on Syria.

The secretary asked more questions than he answered and didn't reveal much about the specifics of where he stood. But it was stunningly clear from the direction of the conversation that he believed Washington needed to find a way to do more -- much more. I didn't. And Kerry for sure wasn't convinced by my Dr. No point of view. I give him credit for including me. But rarely have I encountered anyone -- let alone a secretary of state -- who seemed more self-confident about his own point of view and not all that interested in somebody else's.

This sense of self-confidence is the hallmark of the Kerry style of diplomacy. No problem is too big that it can't be made better. Trying and failing isn't ideal; but it's better than not trying at all. And if given enough time and focus -- will and skill, too -- there's always a way forward.

Only someone with this kind of can-do attitude would venture into Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy against such extremely long odds; keep pushing for a Geneva conference to end Syria's civil war with the faintest of hopes of success; and (not or) be bullish on a deal with Iran that has alienated key U.S. allies and much of Congress, too.

Having watched Kerry operate for almost a year now, I'm less interested in an interim report card on his record. It is way too soon for that. What intrigues me more are the trend lines, and specifically what will be required at the end of the day for him to be judged a truly consequential secretary of state, let alone one of America's best. Perhaps this isn't his goal. But watching John Kerry -- the Energizer Bunny of U.S. diplomacy -- I'd be stunned if it wasn't.

Having worked for and watched a number of his predecessors, I've identified at least five elements that need to be present for success. In Kerry's case, they're all there, at least on paper. Each has a fairly large asterisk, to be sure. And much will have to break his way to admit  him into the secretary of state hall of fame.

Is there real opportunity?

I don't care how smart, brilliant, or passionate a secretary of state may be, unless the world cooperates, significant success -- let alone real breakthroughs -- aren't possible. It's the interaction between human agency and circumstance that usually defines what happens and doesn't in international politics.

The notion that secretaries of state -- or presidents, for that matter -- make their own breaks and luck is true enough, provided there's enough raw material out of which to fashion success. For all of Henry Kissinger's brilliance and negotiating skills, had there not been an October 1973 War, there would have been zero chance to for him to produce three Arab-Israeli agreements in 18 months. Had the Soviet Union not been in its last gasps, neither George Shultz nor Ronald Reagan would have been able to pursue successful arms control agreements and end of empire diplomacy. Had Saddam Hussein not invaded Kuwait, James Baker could never have gotten the Arabs and Israelis to the Madrid Conference.

So are there real chances for transformative change in Kerry world? The Middle East is certainly in flux; and that's where the secretary is spending most of his time. But a lot of motion doesn't necessarily mean movement that can be channeled into agreements. And one success -- an interim agreement on Iran, for example -- could actually create other complications, such as alienating key U.S. allies (if my read on Benjamin Netanyahu is accurate), making much more difficult progress with the Palestinians. Indeed, the U.S.-Russian framework accord to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons -- seen by most (now that it's being implemented) as something of an achievement -- resulted in bucking up Assad and will likely have negative consequences for the other Geneva accord on Syria the secretary would like to broker. And let's be clear: even a temporary deal with Iran would be no guarantee that a final agreement will be reached, or that U.S.-Iranian relations are going to be transformed.

Still, Kerry has the kind of running room both abroad and at home that his predecessor never did. Hillary Clinton was constrained by President Barack Obama's controlling nature, her own risk aversion, and a lack of real opportunities. Kerry's world may not offer up the kind of opportunities for transformative change along the lines of a dramatic opening to China, Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem; or the collapse of the former Soviet Union. But it may well be a world marked by potential transactions and smaller deals of consequence.

I think Kerry gets this, though it's hardly surprising that he aspires to much more. That's fine so long as he doesn't get carried away and allow rhetoric to outstrip action or to obscure a realistic assessment of what can actually be accomplished. These are traps that Kerry needs to be careful to avoid. His supreme confidence in public leads him too frequently to overdramatize: for example, comparing Assad's use of chemical weapons to Munich or warning of last chances for Middle East peace and a third intifada should no agreement be reached.

Are you in the middle of the mix?

The Hippocratic Oath also apples to diplomacy: above all, do no harm. But while prudence is critically important in diplomacy, giving yourself a chance to succeed is too. And you can't do that by just sitting on the sidelines. I hate turning U.S. foreign policy into a breakfast analogy, but it's true that omelets can't be made without breaking eggs.

The evidence to date that Kerry wants to cook is pretty clear: negotiating a U.S.-Afghan security agreement; putting together a U.S.-Russian framework agreement to destroy Assad's chemical weapons; working toward a political solution to the Syrian civil war; gunning for an interim deal with Iran on the nuclear issue; and relaunching Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Granted there's a lot more process still in these enterprises than real sustainable accomplishment, but Kerry's in the game. His situation reminds me of the joke about the guy who jumps off the top of a 10-story building. As he's passing the 5th floor, somebody yells out, "How you doing?" "So far, so good!" he replies.

So are there downsides to being diplomacy's Energizer Bunny? Sure. You take a lot of heat for being naïve, overextended, too eager for the deal. And there's always the risk of being taken for granted. A secretary must maintain a certain amount of detachment, creating the mystique of being unavailable and inaccessible. It creates authority. Too many phone calls, meetings, trips and you become part of the political furniture. It took us almost two years to persuade Baker to take up the Arab-Israeli issue. We kept telling him he had to engage; and he kept telling us, "no." And he was right to wait and engage at the right moment. Kerry could borrow a page out of Baker's book.

Do you have strong partners?

You tell me. Carter and Kissinger had Anwar Sadat. Nixon and Kissinger had Zhou Enlai and Leonid Brezhnev; Reagan, Shultz, Bush 41, and Baker had Helmut Kohl and Mikhail Gorbachev. Today, with the exception of Putin (who's strong but ornery), Kerry is dealing with either highly constrained partners like Syria's fractious opposition and Palestine's Mahmoud Abbas, or politicians like Benjamin Netanyahu and Hassan Rouhani, who are either unable or unwilling to risk much.

Moreover, Kerry has a few silent partners who aren't at the table. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Syria's Bashar al-Assad are critically important to his diplomatic efforts, but he has no contact with them and thus not much influence. Successful secretaries of state who achieve consequential things aren't about one hand clapping. They need partners. The question is whether or not those he's dealing with are able to make deals, let alone grand bargains. So far the picture is quite mixed. At best, it seems, Kerry has partners who are prepared for only limited transactions. And these will be hard enough to sustain.

Does the president have your back?

In Kerry's case, this is a fascinating question. So far, Obama -- the most controlling foreign policy president since Richard Nixon -- has allowed Kerry to get into the middle of the mix in a way he wouldn't do for Clinton. Up until now, he has dominated; not delegated.

But now the president has no choice. The clock's ticking down on his second term. There are just too many potential headaches out there that need attention. And he needs a manager. The question is whether or not he's prepared to take risks on the big issues that resonate politically, or more to the point, to allow Kerry to do so. Obama has his own fair share of domestic problems of late and has been pretty quiet when it comes to big foreign policy questions and the Middle East.

On Iran, the White House appears ready to entertain a good deal of unpleasantness and tension with Israel and Congress in order to get an interim deal with Tehran. On the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, it's not at all clear. But if the president wants to have even the chance of a deal, he's going to have to not only empower his secretary of state but step up and own the negotiations himself at the appropriate time. Right now, particularly in view of the U.S.-Israeli brouhaha over Iran, that seems highly unlikely. Obama and Kerry have created a process where decisions on both Iran and peace with Palestine can only overload Israeli circuits. And a weakened president hammered on problems at home by Republicans (and many in his own party) can't afford to risk blowing too many fuses at once.

Can you pull off a signature achievement?

When it's all over, the question on which John Kerry's legacy as secretary of state will rest is whether he's done something extraordinary. That's not to say he couldn't be judged as a fine secretary of state without some extraordinary accomplishment. But to be a truly consequential one, he'd have to take on a problem that normal human beings saw as really tough (and truly important) and make a major contribution toward resolving it. Kerry has the stamina, will, and smarts. And while his extreme confidence and fiery rhetoric worries me at times, I suspect if given the opportunity he'd do well.

But that's really the point, isn't it? The basic problem may not be Kerry at all. The mix of factors conspires against him: a risk-averse and weakened White House focused more on a domestic agenda; the absence of strong, trusted partners abroad with which to cooperate; and the cruel reality that each of the major problems he seeks to solve is interrelated is galactically complex ways. I know this comes off like State Department insider rationalization. But it's sometimes difficult for those without experience in the business to understand how hard it is to get anything done, particularly in the Middle East. This isn't mindless cheerleading for Kerry; it's a defense of a reality that many too easily lose sight of.

This is particularly true if Kerry believes that the Arab-Israeli peace process is to be his signature legacy. And given the time he's spent shuttling between Washington and Jerusalem, it's clearly the issue he's most visibly identified with and passionate about. Right now, I don't see it. An interim deal with Iran will only increase the odds against it if Netanyahu is left isolated, angry, and aggrieved. The peace process was already in trouble. This isn't going to help.

Maybe the era of heroic U.S. diplomacy, where secretaries of state could tackle huge problems solo, is over. Maybe the era of Hollywood-like diplomatic endings is through. And yet, John Kerry is still trying to play the leading man. I guess we're still only through the first act: there's still plenty of time left on his clock for success ... and for failure, too.


Reality Check

Is Israel Doomed?

Why even dangerous demographics and the receding horizon of peace won't dim the lights in Jerusalem.

Israel's future is grim. Internal and external challenges abound. And like Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Israel has been forewarned by both its friends and enemies of a dire fate if it doesn’t do more to change its ways.

The latest prophet of doom and gloom is the inestimable Yuval Diskin, former head of Israel's Shin Bet and a man who surely knows what he's talking about. In a widely circulated article last July in the Jerusalem Post and another on Ynet last week, Diskin argued that unless Israel reached an agreement with the Palestinians, he wrote, "we will certainly cross the point of no return, after which we will be left with one state from the river to the sea for two peoples. The consequences of such a state for our national identity, our security, our ability to maintain a worthy, democratic state, our moral fiber as a society, and our place in the family of nations will be far-reaching."

Others have made similar points. In the mid-1980s, author and activist Meron Benvenisti opined that it was almost already too late -- five minutes to midnight to use his notion, largely because of Israeli settlement activity. And Secretary of State John Kerry repeatedly talks about "last chances" for a two-state solution, a fate seemingly validated by scant progress made on his latest Middle East trip.

And yet the beaches of Tel Aviv are packed; the cafes and hotels full; and 2012 was the first year in 40 that not a single Israeli was killed in a terrorist attack emanating from the West Bank.

But don't be fooled, the doomsayers warn. Israel is living an illusion or existing on borrowed time, or both. It sits atop a volcano of internal contradictions and conflicts between religious and secular, rich and poor. It is a society that has become increasingly less democratic. It's lost its mission, mandate, and soul. An angry and aggrieved Arab world, a putative nuclear Iran, and a Palestinian challenge completes the Dorian Gray-like picture. If left unresolved, say the Chicken Littles, that latter issue will undermine what's left of Israel's internal cohesion, Jewish majority, and democratic character.

After all, remember the Crusader kingdoms -- powerful but short lived. Time is the ultimate arbiter of what endures. And time will indeed have the last word unless Israel sees the error of its ways and acts before it's too late.

This narrative -- like the Dickens tale itself -- assumes that if Israel, like Scrooge, makes the right choices, then a conflict-ending solution to the Palestinian issue and Israel's acceptance in the region can be assured. And then everyone will live -- more or less --happily ever after.

But there's another narrative too. That Israel, despite all the challenges it has confronted and the odds arrayed against it, has managed to cope, survive, and prosper. Political Zionism, this story goes, was always a defiance of history, and will continue to be. This narrative suggests that it's a cruel and unforgiving world when it comes to Israelis and Jews -- and a complex one, too. It posits the notion that there are no truly happy endings, only imperfect ones: That ending the conflict with the Palestinians will be hard if not impossible to do; that at best only a temporary solution to the Iranian nuclear issue can be found (and even that could lead to military confrontation); and that the Arab world -- far from turning into a land of functioning democracies -- will be filled with dysfunction and uncertainty for many years to come. So, while Israel's actions make a difference, solutions to all these problems may well prove elusive and imperfect, regardless of what Israel does or doesn't do.

So far from prophesying happy endings, this line of thinking holds out the possibility that what's in store for Israel is a difficult path of maneuver in a harsh world. But by no means is it a course that will lead to its ruin. Indeed, so far, even with all its failings and imperfections, the modern Israeli state has exceeded the expectations of its founders and managed to become one of the most dynamic nations in the international system.

So which narrative will prevail? Will Israel endure? That, I suppose, depends on your time horizon. Will the State of Israel be here in 2113 or in 2213? And what kind of state will it be?

Well, as John Maynard Keynes maintained, in the long run we'll all be dead. So here's a more realistic metric for you. Will the State of Israel celebrate its 100th Independence Day in 2048 -- a prosperous and secure state recognizable to those who live there today?

Three powerful factors offset the doomsayers' warnings. And they aren't reflective of a momentary snapshot. The trend lines have been deepening for some time now. They do not eliminate the bad news nor the challenges -- particularly the demographic ones -- ahead. But they do provide a powerful advantage in coping with them. I'd bet that Israel will live to see its 100th anniversary. And here's why.

Israeli Capacity

Whether you see Israel as a friend, enemy, or frenemy, it's hard not to accept the reality that what the country has done in 65 years, particularly given their internal and external challenges, is nothing short of extraordinary. Put aside for a nanosecond if you can Israel's policies toward the Palestinians -- and I know it's impossible for some to get beyond the occupation -- and just focus on Israel proper. For a tiny state, in a tough neighborhood, the accomplishments in the fields of science, technology, agriculture, economic development, art, literature, and music have been remarkable.

Consider these impressive accomplishments:

1. Israeli GDP per capita is $32,800, 44th in the world, and 29th overall if you exclude countries with populations below 100,000 (and count the European Union as separate states). Israel ranks just ahead of Saudi Arabia and New Zealand and behind South Korea and France.

2. Israel is the world leader in startups per capita (1 per 1,800 Israelis).

3. It's No. 3 in companies traded on NASDAQ after the United States and Canada (65 companies).

4. It's 17th in total number of Nobel laureates (with the 96th largest population)

5. Israel holds more patents per capita than any other country in the world.

6. Israel has the third-highest rate of entrepreneurship and highest rate among women and people over 55 in the world.

7. It is the only country that entered the 21st century with a net gain in the number of trees. (my personal favorite).

8. Israel leads the world in the number of scientists and technicians in the workforce, with 145 per 10,000 as opposed to 85 in the United States.

The point is not to trumpet Israel's accomplishments or to suggest they will cancel out the challenges Israel faces in the future. It's to drive home the obvious: this is a serious country both in relative and absolute terms. It's not going away. Indeed, as the Arab Spring threatens to redefine or at least decentralize the Sykes-Picot territorial map, an Arab state or two may well go the way of the dodo well before the Israelis do.

Arab Incapacity

An Arab friend once argued that Israel was a mirror for their region. And every time the Arabs looked into that mirror, they saw their own incapacity and weakness reflected in Israel's strength in military, economic, and technological power.

As Israel has chalked up accomplishments, the nations that surround it seem to grow weaker and more dysfunctional. And that's the case now more than ever in the wake of the Arab Spring. The so-called confrontation states that share contiguous borders with Israel have either made their peace with Israel (Egypt and Jordan) or grown fundamentally weaker (Syria). It's stunningly ironic that the threats to Israel today come from national movements lodged within the non-states -- Hamas and Hezbollah, or from a non-Arab state: Iran. Simply put, the Arab world has diminished in consequence as a serious military or technological threat to the Israeli state.

At the same time, the gap between Israel and Arabs on issues of trade, economy, innovation, and technology continues to grow. Read any U.N. Human Development Report on the Arab region to get a sense of the staggering asymmetries. Just consider these unhappy realities:

1. Middle Eastern companies are globally uncompetitive. The region as a whole makes up less than 1 percent of global non-fuel exports, versus 4 percent from Latin America, which has a similar population.

2. Red tape, poor infrastructure, and other non-tarriff barriers, add 10 percent to the value of shipped goods in the region. Shipping goods from the Middle East to America is cheaper and quicker than shipping between two Middle Eastern ports.

3. Foreign direct investment into 20 of the Arab League states (excluding Comoros and Syria) in 2012 totaled $47.1 billion. Israel alone attracted around $10 billion in 2012.

4. Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index -- which measures how much citizens perceive their leaders to be abusing power -- gave Israel a score of 60 (the best score was 90) in 2012. By comparison, the average score of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran was 30.3.

5. A UNDP statistic that assesses the amount and duration of education citizens of given countries are expected to receive gave Arab states a .5 versus .7 for Latin American and Caribbean states. That's roughly the difference between expected education in Cambodia and Russia.

6. Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index gives the Middle East and North Africa the worst rating of any region in the world. The regional average is equivalent to Pakistan, where 7 journalists have been killed for their reporting in 2013 alone.

7. The Middle East/North Africa region has a greater gap in employment by gender than any other region in the world. Employment is also unequal between age groups -- with youth unemployment above 25 percent. 

8. The adult literacy rate in Arab states in 2009 was 73.4 percent, compared to 93.3 percent in developing Latin American and Caribbean states.

None of this is to say the Arab Middle East cannot become more competitive or more integrated into the world economy. Or that its citizens cannot become more productive too. It's just that the trend lines, particularly in the wake of the turbulence sweeping the region, don't look good. And the gap with the Israel in just about every field is widening. If the hope and dream of Arab nationalists 50 years ago was to close that gap, to bring the formidable power of the Arab world to bear in the struggle with Israel with the goal of enhancing Arab state capacity and weakening Israel's, that project lies in ruins.

U.S. Support

That brings us to the third reason why the gloom-and-doom story or the "settle with the Palestinians or else" narrative loses some of its punch. With the possible exception of the 1973 war, at no point could you make the argument that American support was vital to Israel's immediate survival.

But it is critical to the long-term health, well-being, security, and prosperity of the Israeli state. From America's efforts to maintain Israel's qualitative military edge; to the billions in military and economic aid; to the latitude and support the United States gives Israel on protecting its security; to Washington's willingness to shield and defend Israel from political isolation, sanctions, and criticism; America's support is indeed vital.

And despite the tensions in that relationship it's only gotten stronger on an institutional level and in terms of public support. I've explored those reasons elsewhere but essentially they come down to a perception of common values and identity -- endorsed or acquiesced to by millions of non- Jewish Americans and a pro-active, affluent, and highly influential Jewish community that lobbies effectively on Israel's behalf.

And Israel's neighborhood validates that bond. From Hamas to Hezbollah, from al Qaeda to the Muslim Brotherhood, from Assad's regime using Scuds and chemical weapons against his own people to the U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, there's a perception that the entire region is inherently undemocratic and violent. This not only diminishes Israel's own bad behavior, it validates a pro-Israeli narrative. Indeed, there's a case to be made that the U.S.-Israeli bond will weaken when -- and only when -- the image of Israel fundamentally changes in the minds of Americans. The violent and extreme behavior of states and groups in the Middle East have delayed or even prevented that from happening. Still, even without Arabs behaving badly as perhaps Israel's best talking points in Washington, it's hard to imagine any U.S. administration trying to force Jerusalem to accept a peace deal and or imposing severe consequences if it did not.

But what about the demographic argument? Surely that spells disaster for Israel, a fate that cannot be avoided. Under the pressure of having to manage or control -- with or without the Palestinian Authority -- millions of unhappy, angry, and potentially violent Palestinians, Israel's image in the United States will only deteriorate as the democratic Jewish state is undermined. Demographics might mean that, absent some sort of Israeli-Palestinian agreement, Israel could reach such a state sometime in the next 20-30 years, right around its 100 birthday. It's a powerful argument that cannot be ignored.

Still even the demographics aren't necessarily determinative. Nobody can rule out an Israeli-Palestinian agreement to defuse the problem. And even if one fails to materialize, life is not necessarily that stark or binary in terms of the choices and decisions offered up. Nor is it easy to determine when the point of no return is crossed or the moment of truth and reckoning appears.

More to the point, a smart Israeli leadership could try to defuse the demographic challenge by breaking it into pieces. With regard to the 1.7 million Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, the government could make a concerted effort to eliminate discrimination and ensure that they are treated equally as citizens with their fair share of jobs, access to housing, and educational benefits. As for Gaza's 1.6 million Palestinians, as long as Hamas rules there, Israel will likely treat the problem as a security issue; and there will be little pressure from many other quarters to take Hamas's side and do otherwise. Jerusalem's 300,000 Palestinians seem to be in no great hurry to join up with the Palestinian Authority, and the vast majority have no interest in claiming Israeli citizenship or fighting. With greater attention to improving services and eliminating the barrier, Israeli could go quite a way in defusing tensions there too.

That leaves the 2.3 million Palestinians in the West Bank either living under some form of Palestinian Authority jurisdiction or under Israel's control. And that is a huge problem, particularly should the PA collapse or a third intifada erupt. Indeed, it would create a situation in which more than two million Palestinians would exist without hope, increasingly angry and radicalized. If the past is any guide, the most likely outcome of this unhappy situation wouldn't be a Martin Luther King-like non-violent movement to demand citizenship in an Israeli state; but an uprising marked by violence and terror. And we know where the last Intifada lead. Let's be clear. Israel has bad options on the demographic front. But Palestinian options(and their future) look much worse.

All these factors have afforded Israelis and their leaders the time and space to survive tough years, to strengthen their state, and to prosper. Some believe these assets have also permitted Israel not to make choices, to abdicate responsibility, particularly when it comes to settling up the Palestinians. But the asset triad also provides flexibility for Israeli leaders to make wise and intelligent choices. Some have; others have not.

The choices at hand, however, aren't only Israel's to make -- as if only Israel would do A, B, and C everything would simply fall into place. Israel has missed many opportunities and so have its neighbors. Neat and definitive solutions are hardly the norm. In the end, what is more likely to emerge isn't rebirth and renaissance of the dreamers nor the catastrophe foretold by the pessimists, but the muddle-through envisioned by realists. At least in the years ahead, the Israelis will keep their state and even prosper. But their neighbors will most assuredly never let them completely enjoy it.