John Kerry put his right hand on his heart. "This is not about me," he said.
The secretary of state was reacting to the torrent of criticism at home and abroad of his failed attempt at a Middle East cease-fire. Contrary to his protest, Kerry was taking it personally.
"You know, I -- I’ve spent 29 years in the United States Senate and had a 100 percent voting record pro-Israel, and I will not take a second seat to anybody in my friendship or my devotion to the protection of the state of Israel," he said to the TV cameras in the State Department’s Treaty Room. "But I also believe, as somebody who’s been to war, that it is better to try to find a way, if you can, to solve these problems before you get dragged into something that you can’t stop."
Invoking his service in Vietnam and his legislative voting record? Yep, the criticism has stung.
This is not how it was supposed to be for Kerry, who 10 years ago to the very day accepted the Democratic presidential nomination. The struggles he has had as America’s top diplomat must surprise nobody more than Kerry, whose self-regard is legendary: How dare the world not bend to his will?
Kerry, former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had been rumored as a possible secretary of state since at least 2000. After getting the job in 2013, he’s been making up for lost time. With a golden retriever’s enthusiasm, he has thrust himself into crisis after crisis. But breakthroughs have eluded him.
It’s not Kerry’s fault that international affairs are a mess, of course, and blaming him for the latest violence in Israel is unjustified. A fairer criticism is that he’s been a man on too many missions while serving a president more interested in domestic affairs.
His predecessor, Hillary Clinton, preserved her political prospects by showing a preference for social media over international hotspots. But Kerry has risked his standing repeatedly, personally leading negotiations over Sudan, Ukraine, Iran, Syria and Afghanistan.
His few victories have been tenuous, such as the face-saving deal on Syria’s chemical weapons, his brokering of an electoral dispute in Afghanistan and his intervention to keep nuclear talks going with Iran. The larger problems have only worsened on Kerry’s watch, as militants have claimed much of Iraq and violence rages in Syria, Ukraine and, now, Gaza and Libya.
A senior adviser to Kerry said that the secretary has "frustrations" but the problems are not "of our making." They are, rather, a product of "the many forces unleashed the last several years, from the Arab Awakening to the residual fallout of Iraq to Putin’s inability to accept the new order."
Kerry deserves credit for trying. But his nearly 18 months on the job are a lesson in humility, not just for Kerry but for those in Congress who smugly second-guess the officials they oversee. Leading the world is harder than it looks.
That’s particularly so in the Middle East, where Kerry cajoled Israelis and Palestinians into talks last year only for them to collapse into the current hostilities. Kerry let his irritation show, warning that Israel could become "an apartheid state" and criticizing Israel’s military action as "a hell of a pinpoint operation."
Kerry, natty in a tan linen suit and salmon-pink tie, strolled into the Treaty Room 45 minutes late with his Ukrainian counterpart. State officials had done their best to keep the appearance tightly controlled: They confiscated reporters’ phones, ordered them to remain in their seats and placed a tabbed binder on Kerry’s lectern and a printout titled "Q&A." They allowed questions only from the Voice of America and from NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. But Mitchell thwarted State’s choreography, questioning Kerry aggressively about the "unprecedented" attack on his cease-fire efforts.
Kerry spoke defensively, saying it was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who brought up the possibility of a cease-fire. Kerry shifted his feet behind the lectern. "The fact is that because of our efforts, we were able to get a short-term, 12-hour cease-fire, which then was expanded to 24, but then, because of confusion over the 12 hours and four hours, didn’t hold," he explained.
Kerry tried to move on, but Mitchell broke in again, asking whether a cease-fire remains possible.
The secretary demurred. What matters, he said, is "at least you know you’ve made that effort to try to spare lives ... That’s our job."
And that may be the unsatisfying epitaph for Kerry’s tenure: At least we tried.
Dana Milbank is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.