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

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.

Kerry has bounced around Europe and the Middle East so much he has quipped that his visits are becoming a "commute." The manic travel pace has become part of his rejection of the growing sense that the administration's foreign policy, particularly on the Middle East, has become disjointed and lacks broad vision.

"I think the only person more surprised than I am by the myth of this disengagement is the Air Force pilot who flies the secretary of state's plane," he told business executives last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

At the same time, where Kerry isn't or hasn't been is also an issue.

While he has traversed the Atlantic more than a dozen times as secretary of state, Asia experts lament that Kerry's focus on the Middle East has distracted from the administration's oft-stated ambition to rebalance to the Pacific Rim. A trio of foreign policy heavyweights from President George W. Bush's tenure warned earlier this month that "friends and foes" are watching "to see whether the United States really has staying power in Asia." Current officials counter that Kerry will soon be making his fifth trip to Asia and Obama plans a visit there this spring.

Of the 39 countries Kerry has been to as secretary of state, just one — Ethiopia — has been in sub-Saharan Africa. He has visited only three countries — Brazil, Guatemala and Colombia — in Latin America in his first year on the job.

Kerry supporters are quick to dismiss concerns that his itineraries reflect neglect of certain regions or issues.

"Whether it is the four trips to Asia he has already taken, his work with regional partners to put the necessary pressure on North Korea or the daily calls about the situation on the ground in South Sudan over the Christmas holiday, Secretary Kerry has been deeply engaged in issues all over the world," his spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

"He also has a team of talented Assistant Secretaries, he remains in constant contact with, who are working every day to move the agenda forward," she added.

The secretary's impressive travel records, however, are not guarantees of success, as even his backers allow.

On his three signature issues, Iran, Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Kerry has devoted a substantial amount of time, energy and jet fuel to set in motion a series of processes.

Scoring better than "incomplete" will require actual outcomes.