Analysis: Kerry defensive in discussing his legacy

Kerry has repeatedly defended Obama's decision not to proceed with strikes against Bashar Assad in Syria.

January 11, 2017 01:23
2 minute read.
Kerry China

US SECRETARY of State John Kerry attends a bilateral meeting in China last month. (. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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WASHINGTON -- Outgoing US Secretary of State John Kerry offered a defense of his legacy on Tuesday, characterizing his time in the Obama administration as a period of renewed American leadership in the pursuit of global peace through tireless diplomacy.

He touted the Iran nuclear accord and the Paris climate agreement as hard won, “common sense” achievements, and expressed hope they would stand the test of time despite opposition to both deals from cabinet nominees for the incoming Trump administration. He characterized the forces that have challenged him and his team as tectonic in scale, beyond his control, and his accomplishments therefore all the more significant.

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Questioned by Judy Woodruff at the US Institute of Peace, he said that a false narrative has taken hold over the Obama administration’s handling of events that have gripped the Middle East in recent years– especially the Arab Spring, an event which he said that no one anticipated or could have controlled.

“We’ve been leading,” he insisted, asked by the PBS anchor to respond to calls from the region for more muscular American leadership. He in particular cited the Iran deal, which was brokered by the US, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany.

“If that were just arbitrarily undone, we’re going back to a place of conflict,” Kerry said of the nuclear accord. “It doesn’t make sense.”

In recent days, recapping his tenure at the State Department, Kerry has repeatedly defended Obama’s decision not to proceed with strikes against Bashar Assad in Syria, after his forces deployed sarin gas in 2013 against 1,400 civilians, crossing a “red line” previously outlined by the president. He did so once again with Woodruff, characterizing the president as resolute in his decision to strike despite his decision to refer the decision to Congress last minute.

“Syria is going to be debated, okay?,” Kerry said, noting that the moment “hurt” US credibility amongst Middle East allies. “I know its going to be debated.”


But he characterized his general approach to leadership as relentless engagement in the world’s plethora of conflicts, from fighting to end Ebola in West Africa to supporting peace talks in Colombia’s fifty year-old conflict. The former senator said he was trying to figure out the best way to continue his work “within the context of what’s there,” promising to remain engaged in the same spirit with which he approached his work at the State Department.

“I don’t want to start my own thing,” he noted.

Among those tectonic forces pushing against liberal democratic progress worldwide, Kerry offered a warning applicable both to America’s allies– particularly in Europe, he noted– and to allies in America, still recovering from its own political earthquake.

“We are living in a factless political environment,” he said, “and every country in the world better stop and start worrying about authoritarian populism.”

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