TOPICS > Politics > GWEN'S TAKE

John F. Kerry: In search of credit in a complicated world

bio-ifill
Co-Anchor & Managing Editor
BY Gwen Ifill  May 29, 2014 at 5:54 PM EST
Watch the full John Kerry interview with Gwen Ifill on Thursday's PBS NewsHour. Photo by NewsHour

Watch the full John Kerry interview with Gwen Ifill on Thursday’s PBS NewsHour. Photo by NewsHour

There was so much to get to — Syria, Iran, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Sudan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Edward Snowden.

But what John Kerry wanted to talk about, as we sat down in the State Department’s ornate Madison Room, was Barack Obama — specifically about why the president is getting a bum rap on foreign policy.

“I think we are as engaged, more engaged than in any time in American history,” Kerry told me in our PBS NewsHour interview Thursday. “And I think that case is there to be fully proven and laid out.”

“Yet that’s not the generally held impression,” I interjected.

“No, it’s not,” Kerry responded, with growing animation. “And the reason is there is a general, you know, frankly not fully informed, not factual, conventional sort of process that gets played out in the media. And of course there is an industry in Washington today of oppositionism, oppositionists — oppose anything. And the Congress and its current… pace of legislating tells the whole story.”

You don’t have to look far to find the criticisms Kerry is chafing about. They have quickly congealed into conventional Washington wisdom.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney told FOX News that the president’s decision to set a timetable for exiting Afghanistan was “stupid” and “unwise.”

(Kerry’s response: “I’m not surprised to hear from Dick Cheney something that’s obviously, number one, negative, and number two, wrong.”)

On the NewsHour the night before, Elliott Abrams, who served as deputy national security adviser for President George W. Bush, complained that the U.S. military is shrinking on Mr. Obama’s watch.

“The president is presiding over a diminution of American military power,” Abrams said. “Multilateralism is not going to work without American power.”

But multilateralism is clearly the watchword for this president. In an interview with NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep, Mr. Obama dove deep into multiple sports metaphors to describe the virtues of taking it one step at a time, preferably with partners.

“There is a lot of blocking and tackling to foreign policy,” he said. “To change sports metaphors, or, if you want to stick to baseball, that a lot of what you want to do is to advance the ball on human rights, advance the ball on national security, advance the ball on energy independence, to put the ball in play. And every once in a while, a pitch is going to come right over home plate that you can knock out for a home run. But you don’t swing at every pitch.”

But what happens when the pitches are 100 mph, and they keep coming at you from every direction?

Vladimir Putin shows no sign of releasing his grip on Crimea, which Russia unilaterally annexed over the objections of Ukraine and its Western allies. In our interview, Kerry suggested there may yet be a solution in sight.

“We’re hopeful,” he said. “I talked to the foreign minister of Russia yesterday. They are hoping that there might be a way to — they express a hope, let me say, that there might be a way to go forward. Obviously, words are not what will mean anything here; it’s actions.”

So Kerry hopes for action, dialing up Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to offer — again — U.S. support in an effort to find and free those kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls.

And even though Syrian President Bashar al Assad has ignored calls from international foreign policy leaders to step down, Kerry points out the silver lining: at least Syria has been forced to eliminate of the vast majority of its chemical weapons.

So, according to Kerry, you take the victories — unheralded as they may sometimes be — where you can get them.

This is where sports metaphors come in handy. After our interview was complete, Kerry asked for an opportunity to say one more thing. So we turned the cameras back on.

“I think the president is ready and prepared and capable of hitting a home run at any point in time.” he said. “And I’m sure he’ll swing when he needs to, but he also recognizes that you have to build a larger policy that works in a very complicated world, which is what he’s doing.”

Let the legacy building begin.