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President Barack Obama’s selection of veteran Sen. John Kerry as his next secretary of State is a safe pick, one that should provide continuity with Hillary Rodham Clinton’s tenure at Foggy Bottom.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the past four years and the Democrats’ presidential nominee in 2004, Kerry has embraced the sort of energized diplomatic engagement that Clinton has dubbed “smart power.” That has been a signature of her time at the State Department, and though the Massachusetts Democrat doesn’t have the same touch for public diplomacy as Clinton, nor her ability to work a crowd, he has demonstrated in his own way a deftness for international dialogue.
Kerry served as an envoy for the Obama administration in high-profile trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan during the president’s first term, working to keep Afghan elections from going off the rails, in one instance, and to free an American CIA contractor being held in Pakistan in the other. He also was a key interlocutor for the administration in Sudan, coaxing Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to allow a referendum creating the independent country of South Sudan in 2011.
Kerry’s efforts at engagement haven’t always worked out — he led a now infamous delegation to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus in 2010, calling Syria “an essential player in bringing peace and stability to the region.” Syria is now in the midst of a brutal civil war in which al-Assad and his administration have mercilessly targeted civilians, slaughtering more than 40,000 people.
As Foreign Relations Chairman, Kerry has been drawn to the world’s most troublesome hot spots — the grittier, it seems, the better. His many trips to Kabul and Islamabad have helped him establish personal relationships with the United States’ troublesome allies there — Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani.
“He’ll come from a job already knowing the key players and already being known by the key players in several of the most important parts of the world,” said Jonah Blank, a South Asia expert at RAND Corp., citing Pakistan and Afghanistan in particular. Blank served as a senior aide to Kerry on the Foreign Relations Committee before moving over to RAND.
Those relationships will be key in the coming years as the U.S. military attempts to pull off a shaky transition out of Afghanistan and diplomats work to ink a security agreement with Karzai and help maintain stability in the region even as both countries face national elections and potential political upheaval.
But, as Blank notes, Kerry won’t be able to spend as much time working on Afghanistan and Pakistan issues as secretary of State as he did as chair of Foreign Relations, “simply because he’ll have the whole world to deal with.”
The region “will remain a very important priority, but the secretary of State can’t be overly focused on one area of the world,” Blank said.
One area Kerry has not spent as much time in, but will be a major focus for the Obama administration, is East Asia and the Pacific. Kerry has traveled to China and India as chairman but has spent little time engaging U.S. allies such as Japan and South Korea.