Obama's new head boy Kerry is eyeing prize of Middle East peace
AS John Kerry, America's new secretary of state, arrived in Europe this week, observers were wondering: after a first Barack Obama term marked by conspicuous US foreign policy disengagement, does the appointment of Mr Kerry herald significant change?
Mr Kerry, unlike Hillary Clinton, is a career foreign policy specialist, with more than 25 years' experience on the Senate's foreign relations committee.
One US diplomat, who watched him oversee tense talks with Afghan and Pakistani officials on a 2011 mission to the region for Mr Obama, says the former presidential candidate's image as a genteel New England windbag belies a sharp negotiating mind.
"He will not be the fresh face of America overseas that Clinton was after the Bush years," he says. "We won't feel as excited as we did working for Hillary. But behind the scenes, Kerry may well be better at getting things done."
Yesterday, Kerry flew to Berlin from London, the first stop of his first trip as secretary of state – a hectic nine-country dash through Europe and the Middle East.
Tomorrow, the US politician is due to meet Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, as well as a number of EU finance ministers, in Rome. The pair are expected to discuss EU-US relations ahead of the start of talks on a new trade deal, while international conflicts, including the civil war in Syria, are also expected to be on the agenda.
Those are key topics for the new secretary, but Mr Kerry is said to be "obsessed" with reheating a Middle East peace process that was allowed to go cold by a president with little appetite for foreign entanglement. Yet the key question is whether Mr Obama will let him.
While Mrs Clinton won respect for her indefatigability, after spending endless hours in the air shuttling between world capitals, the White House's dominance meant she "was never really able to own any significant policy in her own right, or to 'make the weather' on her own", as one Western diplomat puts it.
"Barack Obama is the most withholding, controlling foreign policy president since Richard Nixon," warns Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser to several US secretaries of state.
"Kerry needs to forget about hoping to persuade the Arabs and Israelis and work on persuading Obama that he should 'own' a consequential issue."
Having pointedly failed to visit Israel in his first term, Mr Obama is to make a three-day trip to Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman next month. Optimists have taken it as a positive sign, even as cynics argue that the president had little choice.
Events in Syria were front and centre during Mr Kerry's talks with British ministers in London yesterday. The new secretary of state's relationship with Bashar al-Assad, cultivated during visits to Damascus in the years prior to the regime's bloody crackdown, will give European leaders hope that he might help break the deadlock.
Yet having rebuffed calls to arm the rebels from four of the most senior members of his team, Mr Obama is unlikely to endorse any rapid change in course.
Indeed, while Mr Kerry has been hinting around Washington that he would not have accepted the job without assurances that he can lead in a way Mrs Clinton was never allowed to, insiders say early signs have not been encouraging. Within days of his confirmation, officials briefed reporters that Mr Kerry would take to the road almost immediately, with Israel as his first stop. Yet when his itinerary was released more than two weeks later, Israel was absent.
"Kerry thought he could . . . just phone the Air Force liaison office and tell them where he wanted to go," says one congressional aide.
"Then the White House got wind and explained how it really works. 'It's like this, John: you tell us where you want to go, and we tell you if it's okay.'"
Mr Kerry has also accepted Jen Psaki, a senior press adviser to Mr Obama during his re-election campaign, as his spokesman. Fair or not, the perception in some parts is that he has had his wings clipped even before embarking on his maiden flight.
"I think he doesn't represent a change in policy whatsoever," says Jonathan Schanzer, of the neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative think tank. "He's going to be the messenger like Hillary Clinton was."
Others argue that it is too early to write off Mr Kerry, who at 69 is on the last lap of his career, and is determined to seize this final chance to make a mark. He is also owed much by Mr Obama, since it was he who thrust a largely unknown Illinois state legislator on to the national political stage back in 2004.
Mr Kerry's allies hope the president's gratitude extends to entrusting his new diplomat-in-chief with ownership of a prominent international issue.
Even so, after a State of the Union speech that almost completely ignored foreign policy, there is widespread scepticism that Mr Obama will allow his new top diplomat to embark on adventures that he cannot complete.
And if, as the doubters fear, Mr Kerry is rendered impotent, it may ultimately be a reflection of the fact that many of the deepest problems facing America and the West do not have straightforward solutions. (© Daily Telegraph, London)