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.
He is more familiar with Southeast Asia. He was a decorated Navy lieutenant in the Vietnam War, then became a prominent anti-war protester. In the 1990s he chaired the Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs to look into Americans soldiers still missing from the Vietnam War. He and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., then teamed up to successfully push legislation normalizing relations with Vietnam.
As a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry worked closely with President Bill Clinton’s administration on those and other foreign policy efforts, and has also been an important advocate for Obama. He has defended the administration’s measured steps on Iran and Syria from lawmakers who want more aggressive action. And he was a key backer of Obama’s decision to conduct air strikes in Libya, even without going to Congress for authorization. Similarly, he backed military intervention in Bosnia on humanitarian grounds in the 1990s, though he voted against the first Gulf War and became an outspoken critic of the Iraq War, as well.
Kerry has been an active advocate on climate change policy, spearheading Senate efforts on 2010 legislation to reduce U.S. carbon emissions. The bill stalled in the Senate without sufficient Republican support, but environmental advocates are hopeful that Kerry can reignite that advocacy in his new post. Clinton made moves to make environment and energy policy a State Department priority, creating a new department Bureau of Energy Resources earlier this year.
One early political test for Kerry in this regard is the Keystone XL oil pipeline energy companies want to build from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast. The State Department is conducting an environmental review that project, which Obama cited in delaying granting a presidential permit for the pipeline last year.
More broadly, Kerry has consistently defended the executive branch’s prerogative to make foreign policy — on Libya this decade and against efforts by then-Foreign Relations Chairman Jesse Helms, R-N.C., in the 1990s to curb Clinton’s power on various policies and block State Department nominations. That may not endear him to his Senate colleagues when he enters the executive branch, but that hasn’t stopped them from offering their widespread backing of his potential nomination.
Republican senators — many of whom opposed Obama’s presumed first choice for the post, United Nations Ambassador Susan E. Rice — have lauded Kerry as a superior alternative. McCain, Rice’s leading critic, has even taken to calling Kerry “Mr. Secretary.”
On Friday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called Kerry “a very solid choice by the president.” And McCain said he has “confidence in his ability to carry out that job.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.