Kerry shoots high but ambitious first-year agenda as secretary of state awaits results

The Associated Press

FILE - In this Feb. 6, 2013, file photo, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, with his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry, center, is congratulated by Vice President Joe Biden, right, during the ceremonial swearing-in as the 68th secretary of state at the State Department in Washington,. Witnessing the ceremony are Kerry’s daughters Vanessa Kerry, obscured, and Alexandra Kerry, back center, and stepson Christopher Heinz, back right. Kerry has spent nearly half of his first year as secretary of state jumping on and off airplanes and diving headlong into some of the world’s most difficult problems. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

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By MATTHEW LEE, AP Diplomatic Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) — John Kerry has spent nearly half of his first year as secretary of state jumping on and off airplanes and diving headlong into some of the world's most difficult problems.

Since taking office Feb. 4, 2013, he has brought opposing sides to the negotiating table over Syria, Iran and Israel in high-stakes diplomatic gambles that promise big payouts but could fail with catastrophic results. Kerry's major initiatives remain works in progress and so far they have yielded few concrete results. They have opened him up to criticism not only from expected political foes but also from traditional friends and allies.

"Incomplete" may be the most appropriate grade to give to his first 12 months on the job.

When the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee reported for duty at the State Department, brandishing the diplomatic passport he was issued as a child, he hinted at an ambitious agenda.

"What other job can you have where you get up every day and advance the cause of nation and also keep faith with the ideals of your country on which it is founded and most critically, meet our obligations to our fellow travelers on this planet?" he asked his new employees. "That's as good as it gets."

Replacing Hillary Rodham Clinton would not be easy — "I have big heels to fill," he joked — but the son of a diplomat, who developed his taste for international relations as a boy in post-war Europe, made it clear he would try. At the time, perhaps only a few realized just how hard.

Of Kerry's 365 days on the job, 152 have been spent on the road. He has flown more than 327,000 miles aboard his converted Air Force 757 to push Obama administration's foreign policy objectives. That's 114,000 more miles than Clinton logged in her first year and the equivalent of nearly 900 miles per day or 13 times around the earth's circumference.

Some might say he has turned the staid art of diplomacy into a contact sport.

"He's the Energizer Bunny of American foreign policy," said Aaron David Miller, a former diplomat who served under six secretaries of state and is now an analyst at the Wilson Center, a Washington think-tank. "He's in the middle of every mix. He is risk-ready, not risk averse. He believes in diplomacy and he believes in himself."

With his career in politics behind him, Kerry no longer has to worry about the vagaries of voters.

Maybe more importantly, he has been freed from the constraints under which many presidents' first-term secretaries of state operate. While the White House exerted near total control over all the big issues facing Clinton during President Barack Obama's first four years, it has given Kerry largely free rein as it focuses on burnishing the commander-in-chief's domestic legacy.

Kerry has embraced that freedom and even policy critics are hard-pressed to question the passion and vigor he has brought to the job.

Last November, Sen. John McCain likened the secretary of state to a "human wrecking ball," which is far from an accusation of inertia.

Yet, questions abound about what he is pursuing with such passion.

Despite Kerry's intense diplomatic efforts, conditions in Syria continue to deteriorate and the government has yet to live up to its hard-extracted promise to give up its chemical weapons stocks. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians are nearing a nine-month target for a deal with little sign of progress. And difficult negotiations to get Iran to address international concerns over its nuclear program have not yet begun amid deep skepticism about any rapprochement with Iran, both in Congress and among allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia.