U.S. president Barack Obama is expected to nominate U.S. senator John Kerry today to succeed U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who will leave the U.S. state department as one of the most admired public servants in the United States, despite the grumbling over the 9/11 Benghazi attack.
I’ve argued for a long time that the senior senator from Massachusetts is by and far the best choice for the position, and he topped my pre-election list of potential top diplomats; James Traub over at Foreign Policy made the case expertly shortly after Obama’s re-election:
John Kerry is Hillary Clinton in pants. (Yes, I know, Secretary Clinton also wears pants.) He came within a whisker of being president — much closer than she did — and thus enjoys the aura of the almost-commander in chief. He is, like Clinton, a kind of living embodiment of America. He is immensely solemn and judicious, like her, but, unlike her, immensely tall. He is a decorated veteran with the iron grip of the ex-athlete. His baritone voice bespeaks bottomless gravitas. The man looks and acts more like a secretary of state than anyone since George Marshall. As a casting decision, it’s a no-brainer….
It has to be very flattering to be so earnestly interrogated by an enormously tall man who was almost president of the United States.
But it’s not all his tall, lanky body or his distinctive granite jaw. There are other substantial reasons to appoint Kerry, many of which emphasize Kerry’s role at the heart of U.S. foreign policy for over five decades: 1. It begins and ends with Af/Pak. As Traub rightly notes, with respect to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Kerry has essentially already been the top American diplomat in the Obama administration — that was especially so while Af/Pak envoy Richard Holbrooke was still alive, given Holbrooke’s often pugnacious style, which rubbed many Pakistani and Afghan officials the wrong way, and none more so than Afghan president Hamid Karzai. In the second term, the Obama administration will want to extricate itself as seamlessly as possible from war in Afghanistan without losing its influence in stabilizing the region (to the extent it can be stabilized). Given that U.S. drone attacks seem certain to become a more controversial issue in the United States, and they will almost certainly be an issue in the spring Pakistani election, Kerry’s better suited than anyone else to soothe the ruffled feathers in Pakistan as well.
2. The new structure of the U.S. cabinet. Much like British cabinet government changed in the 1950s and 1960s into a top-down more ‘presidential’ government headed by Downing Street, U.S. cabinet secretaries have historically and increasingly taken their orders from the West Wing. In recent years, it’s been rare to see a Cabinet secretary with real policy-setting power outside of State or Defense — certainly, there are a handful of exceptions, including the end of 2008 when Hank Paulson, the U.S. treasury secretary at the end of George W. Bush’s presidency. But unlike Madeline Albright, who took the lead on foreign policy, especially as regards the NATO-led military action in Kosovo, during Bill Clinton’s administration, or Condoleezza Rice, who wielded incredibly influence on U.S. foreign policy in the Bush administration, U.S. state department policy, like all policy, now comes, publicly at least, from an incredibly centralized Obama administration (with some exceptions, notably on women’s rights or transforming U.S.-Burma relations, where Clinton’s fingerprints are obvious).
If office of the U.S. secretary of state has changed from the days of Henry Kissinger — or even just Albright or Rice, it’s more important that the office is held by someone who can command star power and immediate respect from world leaders. In that sense, Clinton has pioneered a new archetype for the role as, quite literally, America’s top diplomat, logging grueling miles abroad in her four years. Kerry, as her successor, fits that role — he’s 120,000 votes in Ohio from being a former president himself.
3. Vietnam. Although its influence is fading in the U.S. collective memory, Vietnam remains the central touchstone in U.S. foreign policy for failure, and Kerry has personally lived through all of the stages of the U.S.-Vietnam drama — he fought there in 1968 and 1969, but returned to the United States to found Vietnam Veterans against the War and quickly became a bête noire of the Nixon administration. He fought hard in the Senate for veteran’s issues since his election in the 1980s, and he chaired the select committee on POW/MIA affairs from 1991 to 1993, ultimately issuing a report that closed out the issue of whether U.S. captives remained in Vietnam. Even more notably, he sponsored a bill with U.S. senator John McCain, to end the U.S. embargo on Vietnam, which led to normalization of relations there in 1995. He’s also seen the brutal side of what Vietnam means in presidential politics, given the merciless attacks by on his service as a ‘Swift boat’ captain in Vietnam — the attack ads questioning Kerry’s service in Vietnam were so harsh that ‘swiftboating’ remains a verb in U.S. politics.
No one else in U.S. foreign policy arguably understands the lessons of Vietnam more — with an increasingly roving U.S. eye in Libya, Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere, it’s important, fully one decade after the Iraq invasion, for U.S. officials not to forget those lessons.
4. Iran/Contra. It’s not typically the first item that comes to the top of the his résumé, but Kerry played a significant role almost immediately upon his election to the Senate in bringing to light the Reagan administration’s secret arms deals with Iran’s government to secure funding for the Nicaraguan ‘contra‘ rebels opposed to Daniel Ortega and the leftist Sandinista regime. It was Kerry’s office that issued the first report exposing the role of retired lieutenant colonel Oliver North and his outrageously illegal operation to fund the contras, exposing one of the most audacious foreign policy scandals of the Cold War era. Notably, Kerry’s office followed up with an investigation of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, uncovering uncomfortable money laundering links to Pakistan’s Bank of Credit and Commercial International, and key relationships with BCCI by U.S. officials, including many establishment figures in the Democratic Party. Kerry’s investigative efforts in the 1980s marked him early as a thoughtful voice and an influential young critic of the U.S. foreign policy establishment.
5. Teresa Heinz Kerry. Kerry’s wife, the former wife of the late Republican senator John Heinz, may not have quite the same contacts as Bill Clinton, but she is certainly sure to sparkle as his successor as the first spouse of Foggy Bottom. She grew up in Mozambique, her father a Portuguese doctor there, she speaks five languages, and she has been outspoken not only on women’s security issues but on health and environmental issues as well. Although Kerry’s campaign aides in 2004 worried about her going off-message, she can be as smooth a diplomat as her husband.
Of course, there were always reasons not to appoint Kerry, and Traub notes in particular his once-cozy relationship with some of the Arab dictators that have been toppled, such as former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, or about to be toppled, such as Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. You could even say he’s too cozy to folks like Karzai. But then again, you could say that about anyone with the experience required to lead the U.S. state department — one of the most legitimate reasons to have opposed the nomination of the U.S ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, is that she’s too cozy with increasingly despotic Rwandan president Paul Kagame, despite indications that he’s been a dishonest broker with respect to the ongoing war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The other reason not to appoint Kerry was purely political — his removal to Foggy Bottom might allow his Senate seat to fall into Republican hands, namely outgoing moderate Republican senator Scott Brown, though that’s far from a certain outcome in heavily Democratic-leaning Massachusetts. But given the 55-45 majority that the Democratic caucus holds in the Senate, to have hesitated about Kerry for such a key administration role would have been politically craven, and it speaks well of the Obama administration that it ultimately didn’t prevent the nomination.
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