FSOs had spent two days scouring Berlin for just the right venue. Told that the Youth Connect event seemed “Clintonesque,” an FSO confided, “I think that’s what they’re trying for.” Dotting the wall behind Kerry were electronic scoreboards, each blaring a one-word slogan such as Innovate or Botschaft (“message”), the lot of them linked by an ostentatious network of black cables that underscored the connectivity theme. The moderator was German TV personality Cherno Jobatey, a smiley-faced man with dark wavy hair, dark blazer, dark shirt, dark jeans and dark Chuck Taylors. Kerry, who has a gift for foreign languages—he demonstrated fluency in at least three on the trip—delighted the students with some German off the top. “Sehr gut, danke. Alles gut. Deine Schuhe sind fantastisch, ja?” (“Very good, thank you. All is good. Your shoes are fantastic, yes?”)
But it wasn’t long before Quintessential Kerry leaped to the fore. A pretty blonde student rose to ask about the emerging economies of Asia and Africa. Kerry’s response extended to almost 700 words, droning on for long and stifling minutes about the imbalance of agricultural regulations between East and West and the need for “the appropriate application of standards” to China’s health and environmental systems. The student was almost instantly lost and could soon be observed texting her friends. It brought back memories of the 2004 campaign, when TV reporters complained to Kerry’s press aides about his penchant for complex rhetorical constructions, his stately senatorial stacking of clause upon clause in great, wobbly towers of soaring Kennedyesque verbiage that became impossible to edit down and get on the six o’clock news. Kerry’s aides would shrug: “You’re preaching to the choir, dude.”
Now a Muslim woman, wearing the traditional cover and excited about her work with JUMA—a group for young followers of Islam who, as she put it, “stand up for righteousness, equality and tolerance”—wanted Kerry’s evaluation of religious tolerance in the United States. Kerry worked his way around to saying that Americans “live and breathe the idea of religious freedom and religious tolerance”—but not before tying himself into pretzels: “Because in America, we have total—occasionally, you have; I can’t tell you that a hundred percent—sometimes you have somebody who’s a little…not as tolerant as somebody else.”
To recover, the secretary figured he would acquaint these starry-eyed Berliners with the American legal tradition of respecting those forms of speech we find most obnoxious. He’d have been better advised to make merry again with host Jobatey, who mostly stood around looking befuddled and bored. “Some people have sometimes wondered about why our Supreme Court allows one group or another to march in a parade,” Kerry said, “even though it’s the most provocative thing in the world and they carry signs that are an insult to one group or another. And the reason is that that’s freedom—freedom of speech.”
Somewhere down in his soul, Kerry likely grasped that he had lost his audience, knew he was already closing in on 250 words in this answer and had failed to strike a chord, failed to #YouthConnect. The moment called for something dramatic, something the kids could relate to. Now Kerry thought he had it: “In America, you have a right to be stupid.” Nervous laughter ricocheted across the room. Immediately Kerry was off again, trying to explain what he’d meant, blathering something about how “you have a right to be disconnected to somebody else.” But the American reporters were all wincing.
#Yikes. From the whole two-hour event, “the right to be stupid” offered the only sound bite Reuters news agency fed to U.S. news markets across the Atlantic. It was not the kind of thing one expects to hear passing the lips of the U.S. secretary of state on foreign soil, let alone on his first overseas trip, and it definitely wasn’t Clintonesque.
For more than two years Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, a mass murderer like his father, had sought to quash a popular uprising against his tyrannical rule. The dictator had used virtually every military asset at his disposal: hundreds of thousands of soldiers, armored fighting vehicles, fighter jets, Scud missiles, heavy artillery. Many believed it was only a matter of time before Assad, increasingly desperate, unleashed the massive arsenal of biological and chemical weapons he was believed to possess. (Indeed, credible reports of chemical weapons use in Syria began to surface after our return to the U.S.) The United Nations estimated the conflict had already claimed 70,000 lives and sent more than 1 million Syrians fleeing to neighboring countries.
Yet Assad’s reduction of whole cities to rubble had only emboldened the Syrian rebels. That term, however—Syrian rebels—is a fiction, an umbrella term for a fractious coalition of fighters and civilians that hardly constitutes an organized opposition force, politically or militarily. At any given moment, the “rebels” will include democratic-minded revolutionaries Americans would approve of; ad hoc local brigades that scour abandoned armories for weapons and answer to no one; and hardened battle units such as the al-Nusra Front, probably the most effective fighting force currently confronting Assad’s troops. The only problem with al-Nusra is that it is openly allied with Al Qaeda. This has created a paradox: As Assad’s military position worsens, suffering high-level defections and surrendering control of provincial capitals and border regions, the situation grows more worrisome for the United States. As the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, testified before Congress, “The longer the conflict continues, the greater the influence of extremists on the ground.”
By the time Kerry was sworn in, the entire civilized world had condemned Assad’s butchery. Seated alongside Kerry in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Saud al-Faisal—the world’s longest-serving foreign minister, in his post since 1975—brandished for Assad words of contempt even the Israelis had never elicited. “I have never heard or seen in history,” the prince said, his speech slowed by advanced age and Parkinson’s disease, “that a regime would use a strategic missile toward his people. And [Assad] is killing innocent children, innocent women and old men. Nobody who has done that to his citizens can claim a right to lead a country.”
Worried about supplying weapons that would fall into the hands of al-Nusra fighters and eventually be turned against us—or against the Israelis—the Obama administration had long refused to help the rebels militarily (even though then Senator Kerry, in May of last year, had so urged). No such qualms have inhibited the Saudis, however. Once Assad looked vulnerable, Riyadh swiftly assumed a lead role in arming and funding the Syrian opposition. In this the Saudis were joined by other oil-rich Sunni Arab nations in the Persian Gulf, most of which are eager to see the Shi’ite regime in Damascus collapse. The toppling of Assad would deal a huge strategic setback to Iran, the Shi’ite power whose regional bullying and pursuit of nuclear weapons have long posed a threat to the Sunni states.
Yet Iran was not the only authoritarian government propping up Assad. So was Russia. Despite having signed on to the Geneva Communiqué, a multilateral accord that calls for an orderly transition to a new and democratic Syria—i.e., one that does not include Assad—the Kremlin had steadfastly continued to back the regime throughout the crisis. Since the Soviet era, Kremlin warships have docked at a Russian naval base in the Syrian coastal city of Tartus, and military contracts between the two capitals are now estimated to be worth $4 billion. For these reasons, the Russians have consistently blocked meaningful action against Assad at the UN Security Council and kept up their deliveries of weapons to Assad’s forces. The Cold War is over, but Mother Russia remains strong, and President Vladimir Putin remains determined to check American power and influence wherever possible.
Accordingly, shaping up as one of the critical events on Kerry’s itinerary was his first sit-down as secretary with Russia’s notoriously acerbic foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. Tall and bespectacled, an imposing figure with a deep voice and scowling mien, Lavrov has held his post for nearly a decade and has chewed up one secretary of state after another. At the Adlon in Berlin, a long table covered in white linen was set up in a conference room for the American and Russian sides, suitable for a major arms-control negotiation. Flanking Kerry, who was placed at the middle of the table, was State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland; Phil Gordon, the assistant secretary for Europe and Eurasia, soon to move over to the National Security Council; Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, a tall, blonde NSC officer, soon to receive a promotion to a more senior NSC post; Cynthia Doell, the official “note taker” for the American side; and U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr., a Tennessean with a chest full of medals and ribbons who was representing the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On Lavrov’s side, chairs were reserved for Alexander A. Tokovinin, director of the Russian foreign ministry’s Policy Planning Department; Evgeny S. Ivanov, Lavrov’s staff secretary; and note taker Oleg V. Pozdnyakov, among others. These officials are seldom glimpsed by the American press.
For an hour, Russian and American reporters rocked on their heels, waiting for the principals to appear and hungrily eyeing a platter of coffee and pastries that the Adlon’s German waitstaff had made clear was verboten. Then, suddenly, movement: Kerry and Lavrov shook hands and ambled over to a pair of microphones and flags set up in a corner so they could repeat the exercise for photographers. “We are happy to see each other,” Kerry said jovially. “We know each other and have had some good discussions.” Lavrov was in no mood for it, though, and swiftly administered poison gas to the merriment. He scowled at the reporters and said, in English, “If they get out, I will be able to get to my chair.”
With the reporters ushered out, sources said later, Kerry played possum while Lavrov harangued him with a long list of Kremlin grievances—not just on big topics such as Syria and Iran and Moscow’s recent decision to block Americans from adopting Russian children, but on small stuff, criminal cases unworthy of the occasion. Kerry, of course, has long experience with foreign leaders fond of lecturing Americans. There was good reason to believe the new secretary of state handled this moment with considerable deftness—or about as well as Sergey Lavrov can be handled—by structuring the nearly two-hour session in a way that maximized, at least in theory, the chances that Lavrov would honor his promises. When it was over, Kerry scooted off to more closed-door meetings. Lavrov, however, spoke to the news media—with his usual edge. “The discussion was, to my mind, constructive and in the spirit of partnership,” he said, “without, of course, ignoring the questions which are irritating these relations.”
What President Obama and Kerry wanted from the Russians, above all, was for President Putin to make a final break with Assad: to recognize that the dictator’s days were indeed numbered, as Obama had been saying since early 2012, and for Moscow to cease its supplies of arms and cash to the Syrian regime. The American message boiled down to this: If the Kremlin doesn’t wake up, it will soon find itself sharing with Washington the burden of dealing with a new Syrian government run by al-Nusra. Surely Russia’s billionaire oligarchs and the executives at Gazprom, the national gas behemoth, could be persuaded that the emergence of an Al Qaeda state in the heart of the Middle East would be bad for business.
The true measure of Kerry’s success in this opening duel with Lavrov would emerge a month later, on March 20, when Ambassador Ford told the House Foreign Affairs Committee,“We would like Russia, first of all, to stop delivering arms systems to the Syrian government. This is an ongoing conversation that we have with them.”
Kerry’s a toucher. The physical contact he initiated during our first 15 minutes on the plane together, as he strode the cabin and chatted with his new press corps, easily exceeded the sum total of my physical contact with cabinet officers in the previous 15 years. He would scrunch your shoulder while talking to someone else, like a kindly uncle. When he and a foreign counterpart shuffled offstage after a news conference, Kerry, invariably the taller man, would place his hand on his colleague’s back or shoulder, gently guiding his host out—in the host’s own foreign ministry. Near the end of the trip, when I arrived for our one-on-one interview, Kerry shook my hand, then drew me in for a bear hug, like a fraternity brother.
Far from displaying the cruelty some politicians are given to, Kerry is gentle in nature. He follows up jokes with “Only joking!” and strives to do all the right things. On a recent trip he traipsed down the aisle toting a birthday cake for Margaret Brennan of CBS News. On the last stop of our marathon, a refueling mission at the duty-free shoppers’ paradise of Shannon Airport in Ireland, Kerry returned to the cabin carrying shopping bags stuffed with tins of Irish toffee and chocolates, and tossed the sweets to us like Santa Claus. There were few people of consequence Kerry hadn’t met and about whom he couldn’t produce, on cue, a pleasing anecdote. Standing in the airplane aisle or seated over wine in a Middle Eastern hotel courtyard, Kerry might still be wearing the pin-striped pants from his suit or might have changed into jeans. He regularly wore a black alligator belt with a silver buckle; a button-down shirt open at the neck, sometimes denim with brown pearl buttons; and for warmth a salmon-colored Polo hoodie adorned with Native American stitching. Sometimes his history of knee troubles could be observed, but mostly Kerry still moved, at 69, with a kind of preppy athleticism. It gave you a sense of what he must have been like at St. Paul’s or Yale in the 1960s. I liked him.