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True Compass

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Maybe so, but it wasn’t enough to cobble together the requisite 60 votes to overcome a Republican-led filibuster. And yet, even after Reid’s announcement that his party would try to pass only a limited bill—retroactively removing liability caps for firms like BP, instituting energy-efficiency incentives—Kerry refuses to concede that a broader measure is dead for 2010. When I ask about the collapse of his efforts, he testily interrupts, “I don’t like that word, collapse. The climate bill has been temporarily delayed.” When I ask if that means he’s in favor of taking it up in a lame-duck session, he replies, “I’m for getting it done. And if it can be done in a lame duck, I’d do it.”

Beyond the tactical maneuvering, what’s notable about Kerry’s posture is its clarity, force, and passion—not always the first qualities that spring to mind when you think of him. “What’s confounding about this debate is that it’s been cynically politicized by people who have simply wanted to exploit it, rather than find a real solution,” Kerry says. “The tragedy is that India, China, Brazil, and Mexico are racing to this marketplace and the United States is not; it’s a terrible indictment of where we are as a country in terms of dealing with big issues … But I’m not dissuaded or deterred. Because this issue isn’t going away. We have to deal with it.”

Kerry’s role on Afghanistan has been no less central or energized. Last fall, at the behest of Clinton and special envoy Richard Holbrooke, he engaged in a frantic and fruitful round of shuttle diplomacy, persuading Afghan president Hamid Karzai to hold a second-round runoff election in the wake of an earlier vote that was universally condemned as fraudulent to its core. That runoff, in turn, created at least a patina of legitimacy that allowed Obama to announce his new war strategy, with its temporary troop escalation, at West Point two months later.

Since then, however, the path set by the administration has seemed to run straight into a ditch. The mounting body count. The controversy over General Stanley McChrystal. The questions about the efficacy of David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency doctrine, about Karzai’s reliability, about Pakistan’s clandestine relationship with the Taliban. The ebbing of political support for the war in both parties here at home and among America’s allies abroad.

Kerry has been among those expressing doubts. What’s been missing, though, is the sharpness or lucidity of his thundering on climate change. What we’ve seen from him instead is a more typically Kerryesque performance: well informed and well intentioned, but rife with ambivalence and equivocation. A few weeks ago, after making public a tranche of 40-year-old private discussions of the Foreign Relations Committee on Vietnam, he said, “Some of the parallels [with Afghanistan] are almost eerie.” But then Kerry reiterated his support for the current war: “But grim as the statistics are, heartbreaking as every death is, this is not the time to give up.”

His response to the WikiLeaks story last week was similarly muddled. At first, he issued a statement at stark variance to the White House’s dismissal of the news, and one that implicitly seemed to recognize the obvious parallel to the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971: “However illegally these documents came to light, they raise serious questions about the reality of America’s policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan.” Within days he backpedaled, saying publicly, “It’s important not to overhype or to get excessively excited about the meaning of those documents.”

It’s easy enough to sympathize with Kerry’s predicament. Afghanistan is a problem from hell. And nuance is no bad thing regarding war and peace. But there comes a time when caution, incrementalism, and circle-squaring have outlived their usefulness—and this is one of them. After nine long and bloody years, what we have in Afghanistan is a war with uncertain goals, no clear definition of success, and no end in sight. And Kerry knows it. On the phone with me last week, he admitted as much, rattling off a series of foundational questions to which the administration has offered no convincing answers. And yet when I asked if it was time to dramatically downscale our ambitions there, he demurred. “I’m not losing faith [in the White House],” he said. “But I think it might be that we need to, um, recalibrate a little bit.”

No. What we need is a fundamental change of course—and Kerry, more than anyone on the Hill, now has the stature to help get us there. On climate change, Kerry seems to have asked himself, What would Teddy do? And then followed suit. He should ask himself the same about Afghanistan. The question answers itself.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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